The clinical symptoms of Parkinson's disease (PD) appear late and only when the degenerative process at the level of the nigrostriatal dopamine (DA) pathway is quite advanced. An increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) expression may be one of the molecular signals associated to compensatory and plastic responses occurring in basal ganglia during presymptomatic PD. In the present study, we used in vivo microdialysis, semiquantitative reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction, and immunohistochemistry to study N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptor regulation of BDNF expression in substantia nigra (SN) of adult rats after partial lesioning of the nigrostriatal DA pathway with unilateral striatal injections of 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA). A time-dependent partial decrease of striatal DA tissue content as well as parallel and gradual increases in extracellular glutamate and aspartate levels in SN were found 1 to 7 days after unilateral 6-OHDA intrastriatal injection. Instead, the number of tyrosine hydroxylase–immunoreactive (IR) cells in the ipsilateral SN pars compacta remained statistically unchanged after neurotoxin injection. Intrastriatal administration of 6-OHDA also produced an early and transient augmentation of pan-BDNF, exon II–BDNF, and exon III–BDNF transcripts in the ipsilateral SN. The pan-BDNF and exon II–BDNF transcript increases were completely abolished by the prior systemic administration of MK-801, a selective antagonist of NMDA receptors. MK-801 also blocked the increase in BDNF-IR cells in SN observed 7 days after unilateral 6-OHDA intrastriatal injections. Our findings suggest that a coupling between glutamate release, NMDA receptor activation, and BDNF expression may exist in the adult SN and represent an important signal in this midbrain nucleus triggered in response to partial DA loss occurring in striatal nerve endings during presymptomatic PD. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.