Neurotrophins have traditionally been regarded as slow-acting signals essential for neuronal survival and differentiation. Recent studies with neuronal slices, cultures and nerve ending preparations have shown that neurotrophins generate acute changes in nerve activity. Among the secondary sensory cells are the inner hair cells (IHC) and taste buds, cells which express the neurotrophic factors necessary for the survival of their innervating neurons. If in these cells neurotrophins acutely affect the nerve activity of their afferent neurons, as in the central nervous system (CNS), this may have important functional implications for the corresponding sensory transduction processes. The neurotrophin NT-3 has been reported to be expressed in IHCs. We chose an in vivo application system for the microiontophoretic supply of NT-3 in the subsynaptic region of the IHC. The effect of NT-3 on spontaneous and evoked afferent cochlear nerve activities in adult guinea pig inner ear was studied. We observed that NT-3 rapidly increases the spontaneous and glutamate-evoked firing rate of IHC afferents. Moreover, firing induced by both N-methyl- d-aspartate (NMDA) and α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid (AMPA) were specifically enhanced during the presence of NT-3, a process which was selectively blocked by the tyrosine kinase receptor inhibitor K252a. Because we localized NT-3 mRNA not only in IHCs but also in the spiral ganglion, we propose that similar to other sensory systems, afferent and autocrine neurotrophin activities may be responsible for survival of cochlear neurons. In addition, NT-3 in IHCs may operate as a signal-dependent, intrinsic neuromodulator and/or neuroprotector.