Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is one of several endogenous proteins that play key roles in neuronal development and homeostasis. We describe here the characterization and use of a sensitive and specific enzyme-linked immunoassay (EIA) for BDNF protein. Recombinant BDNF was detected at concentrations as low as 10 pg/ml, whereas the EIA did not detect NT-3, NT-4/5, or NGF at concentrations as high as 100 ng/ml. Because BDNF protein sequences are identical among humans, mice, and rats, we utilized the BDNF EIA to detect BDNF in the circulation or brain regions of these species. High concentrations of BDNF were detected in human and rat serum, and up to 50-fold lower BDNF levels were present in citrated human or rat plasma. The BDNF signal (66-141 pg/ml) in 20% human plasma was completely blocked by pre-exposure of plasma to a monoclonal antibody (Mab) specific for BDNF but not by exposure to 5-fold greater concentrations of an irrelevant Mab of the same isotype (IgG1). There was a significant and positive correlation (r = +0.86) between plasma levels of BDNF and serotonin, an indoleamine that is specifically released from activated platelets. These results are consistent with the view that the BDNF detected in human and rat plasma is derived from platelet degranulation, and that circulating levels of BDNF are negligible. In contrast to human or rat serum, mouse serum contained no detectable BDNF. However, BDNF protein was readily detectable at 108-256 ng/g of tissue in hippocampus, frontal cortex, and neostriatum of mice and rats. Thus, the failure to detect BDNF in murine serum was not due to an assay defect but highlights a significant species difference in the tissue-specific expression of BDNF that may be of biological importance. The presence of BDNF protein in blood and brain regions at quantities which greatly exceed those described for NGF confirm the abundant distribution of this broadly-acting neurotrophic factor.