To investigate the distribution of neurons within the developing trigeminal sensory system which express mRNA for each of the three known high-affinity neurotrophin receptors (trk, trkB and trkC), we have performed in situ hybridization histochemistry on serial sections through the trigeminal ganglion and trigeminal mesencephalic nucleus at various ages of development using specific antisense oligonucleotide probes. We show that trkC mRNA is first expressed in the chicken embryo at stage 13, in presumptive neurons prior to the formation of the ganglion, that trkB mRNA labelling is initially observed within peripheral neurons slightly later, at stage 19, and that trk mRNA expression is not detectable until around embryonic day 3.5 (stage 21/22). The neurons which exhibit mRNA labelling for each of the high-affinity receptors occupy discrete regions within the ganglion, indicating that the ganglion comprises distinct neuronal subpopulations, each of which has a different capacity to respond to the different neurotrophins. Neurons which express trk mRNA are confined to the proximal region of the ganglion, whereas those which express trkB mRNA and trkC mRNA are located in two distinct regions within the distal aspect and also within the trigeminal mesencephalic nucleus. From the estimation of the number of neurons which exhibit labelling between embryonic days 9 and 18, we determined that the expression of mRNA for the high-affinity receptors changes during embryonic development of the ganglion. This is consistent with the observed differences in the response to neurotrophins in vitro.