A signaling pathway by which calcium influx regulates the expression of the major activity-dependent transcript of BDNF in cortical neurons has been elucidated. Deletion and mutational analysis of the promoter upstream of exon III reveals that transactivation of the BDNF gene involves two elements 5' to the mRNA start site. The first element, located between 72 and 47 bp upstream of the mRNA start site, is a novel calcium response element and is required for calcium-dependent BDNF expression in both embryonic and postnatal cortical neurons. The second element, located between 40 and 30 bp upstream of the mRNA start site, matches the consensus sequence of a cAMP response element (CRE) and is required for transactivation of the promoter in postnatal but not embryonic neurons. The CRE-dependent component of the response appears to be mediated by CREB since it is part of the complex that binds to this CRE, and since dominant negative mutants of CREB attenuate transactivation of the promoter. A constitutively active mutant of CaM kinase IV, but not of CaM kinase II, leads to activation of the promoter in the absence of extracellular stimuli, and partially occludes calcium-dependent transactivation. The effects of CaM kinase IV on the promoter require an intact CRE. These mechanisms, which implicate CaM kinase IV and CREB in the control of BDNF expression, are likely to be centrally involved in activity-dependent plasticity during development.