The accessibility of the primary sensory neurons of the trigeminal system at stages throughout their development in avian and mammalian embryos and the ease with which these neurons can be studied in vivo has facilitated investigation of several fundamental aspects of neurotrophin biology. Studies of the timing and sequence of action of neurotrophins and the expression of neurotrophins and their receptors in this well characterised neuronal system have led to a detailed understanding of the functions of neurotrophins in neuronal development. The concepts of neurotrophin independent survival, neurotrophin switching and neurotrophin cooperativity have largely arisen from work on the trigeminal system. Moreover, in vitro studies of trigeminal neurons provided some of the first evidence that the neurotrophin requirements of sensory neurons are related to sensory modality. The developing trigeminal system has been studied most extensively in mice and chickens, each of which has particular advantages for understanding different aspects of neurotrophin biology. In this review, I will outline these advantages and describe some of the main findings that have arisen from this work.