Chronic exposure of brain neurons to nerve growth factor in vitro and in vivo results in increased levels of the nerve growth factor receptor TrkA. In contrast, in the present study, we have found that chronic exposure of rat embryonic cortical neurons to brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) leads to a pronounced reduction of the levels of protein and messenger RNA for the full-length but not the truncated BDNF receptor TrkB. Similar effects were observed with the other TrkB ligands neurotrophin-3 and neurotrophin-4/5. After pretreatment with BDNF, neurotrophin-3 or neurotrophin-4/5, subsequent tyrosine phosphorylation responses of the remaining Trks to the same factors were greatly reduced. Three days exposure of rat embryonic cortical neurons to BDNF induced an absolute refractory period of several hours, with no subsequent response to the same factor. Similar but less pronounced refractory effects were observed with neurotrophin-3 and neurotrophin-4/5. Our results suggest a negative regulatory effect of BDNF and other TrkB ligands on TrkB receptors. Down-regulation of the TrkB response by its ligands might play a role in the control of BDNF action during early development, when BDNF levels significantly increase. Our findings are also of potential clinical relevance, since the possibility of ligand-induced down-regulation of the receptor response needs to be addressed when considering BDNF or other neurotrophins for the therapy of neurodegeneration.