Different subpopulations of adult primary sensory neurons in the dorsal root ganglia express receptors for different trophic factors, and are therefore potentially responsive to distinct trophic signals. We have compared the effect of the neurotrophins nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and NT-3, and of glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) on neurite outgrowth in dissociated cultures of sensory neurons from the lumbar ganglia of young adult rats, and attempted to establish subset-specific effects of these trophic factors. We analysed three parameters of neurite growth (percentage of process-bearing neurons, length of longest neurite and total neurite length), which may correlate with particular types of axon growth in vivo, and may therefore respond differently to trophic factor presence. Our results showed that percentage of process-bearing neurons and total neurite length were influenced by trophic factors, whilst the length of the longest neurite was trophic factor independent. Only NGF and GDNF were found to enhance significantly the proportion of process-bearing neurons in vitro. GDNF was more effective than NGF on small, IB4– neurons, which are known to develop GDNF responsiveness early in postnatal development. NGF, and to a much lesser extent GDNF, enhanced the total length of the neurites produced by neurons in culture. BDNF exerted an inhibitory effect on growth, and both BDNF and NT-3 could partially block some of the growth-promoting effects of NGF on specific neuronal subpopulations.