The neurotrophins NGF, BDNF, NT-3 and NT-4 have a wide range of effects in the development and regeneration of neural circuits in the visual system of vertebrates. This review focuses on the localization and functions of neurotrophins in the retina, lateral geniculate nucleus, suprachiasmatic nucleus, superior colliculus/optic tectum, and isthmic nuclei. Research of the past 20 years has shown that neurotrophins and their receptors are localized in numerous visual centers from the retina to the visual cortex, and that neurotrophins influence proliferation, neurite outgrowth and survival of cells in the visual system in vitro and in vivo. A relationship between electrical activity and neurotrophic functions has been established in several visual centers in the CNS, and neurotrophins have been implicated in synaptic plasticity in the visual cortex. Besides functions of neurotrophins as retrograde, target-derived trophic factors, recent data indicate that neurotrophins may have anterograde, afferent as well as local, paracrine actions in the retina, optic nerve and the visual cortex. Some neurotrophins appear to regulate proliferation and survival of glial cells in the optic pathways. Neurotrophins increase the survival of retinal ganglion cells after axotomy or ischemia and they promote the regeneration of retinal ganglion cell axons in some vertebration. Neurotrophins also rescue photoreceptors from degeneration. These findings implicate the neurotrophins not only as important regulators during development, but also as potential therapeutic agents in degenerative retinal diseases and after optic nerve injury.