Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a neurotrophin implicated in the phenomena of synaptic plasticity in the adult. It is found in terminals of nociceptive primary afferents. Following a pain-related stimulus, it is released in the spinal cord, where it activates its high-affinity receptor TrkB, leading to the phosphorylation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK). A large body of evidence suggests that BDNF has a positive neuromodulatory effect on glutamate transmission in the spinal cord. However, none of these studies examined anatomically whether projection neurons known to be involved in transmission of nociceptive inputs express BDNF's receptor. Because the spinothalamic tract (STT) is a well-characterized pathway for its role in the transfer and integration of sensory and nociceptive informations, this study in rats aimed to 1) determine whether neurons of the STT pathway express the TrkB receptor, 2) establish the rostrocaudal and laminar distribution of STT-TrkB neurons in the whole spinal cord, and 3) test the potential functionality of TrkB expression in these cells by investigating the ability of BDNF to activate the MAP kinase ERK. Using tract tracing coupled to immunofluorescent labeling for TrkB, we observed that in all levels of the spinal cord most STT neurons were immunoreactive for TrkB. Furthermore, microinjections of BDNF into the spinal cord or release of endogenous BDNF by intraplantar injection of capsaicin activated ERK phosphorylation in TrkB-containing STT neurons. These data suggest an important role for BDNF in nociception as an activator of spinothalamic projection neurons. J. Comp. Neurol. 489:59–68, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.