Neurotrophins play a crucial role in the regulation of survival and maintenance of specific functions of various populations of neurons. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), newrotrophin-3 (NT-3) and neurotrophin 4/5 (NT-4) have been shown to support motoneuron survival during embryonic development and, after birth, to protect motoneurons from degeneration after nerve lesion. We have compared the levels of these neurotrophins in skeletal muscle by quantitative Northern blot analysis, both during embryonic development and postnatally. We localized the sites of expression of these neurotrophins by in situ hybridisation and analysed the expression of trkB in the spinal cord by in situ hybridisation and immunohistochemistry. NT-3 is most abundantly expressed both during embryonic development and in the postnatal phase, followed by NT-4. The levels of BDNF are very low, in particular after birth. After nerve lesion, NT-3 mRNA essentially remained unchanged, whereas NT-4 mRNA rapidly decreased. The slow increase in BDNF expression seems to be essentially due to the expression in Schwann cells rather than skeletal muscle, demonstrated by in situ hybridisation. Our data indicate that motoneurons can receive trophic support from several members of the neurotrophin gene family during the period of naturally occurring cell death. Postnatally, the predominant ligand acting via trkB on motoneurons is NT-4, whereas BDNF expression seems to play a role mainly after nerve lesion. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.