The neurotrophins are a small group of dimeric proteins that profoundly affect the development of the nervous system of vertebrates. Recent studies have established clear correlations between the survival requirements for different neurotrophins of functionally distinct subsets of sensory neurons. The biological role of the neurotrophins is not limited to the prevention of programmed cell death of specific groups of neurons during development. Neurotrophin-3 in particular seems to act on neurons well before the period of target innervation and of normally occurring cell death. In animals lacking functional neurotrophin or receptor genes, neuronal numbers do not seem to be massively reduced in the CNS, unlike in the PNS. Finally, rapid actions of neurotrophins on synaptic efficacy, as well as the regulation of their mRNAs by electrical activity, suggest that neurotrophins might play important roles in regulating neuronal connectivity in the developing and in the adult central nervous system.