Dysfunction of cholinergic basal forebrain (CBF) neurons of the nucleus basalis (NB) is a cardinal feature of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and correlates with cognitive decline. Survival of CBF neurons depends upon binding of nerve growth factor (NGF) with high-affinity (trkA) and low-affinity (p75NTR) neurotrophin receptors produced within CBF neurons. Since trkA and p75NTR protein levels are reduced within CBF neurons of people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and mild AD, trkA and/or p75NTR gene expression deficits may drive NB degeneration. Using single cell expression profiling methods coupled with custom-designed cDNA arrays and validation with real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR) and in situ hybridization, individual cholinergic NB neurons displayed a significant down regulation of trkA, trkB, and trkC expression during the progression of AD. An intermediate reduction was observed in MCI, with the greatest decrement in mild to moderate AD as compared to controls. Importantly, trk down regulation is associated with cognitive decline measured by the Global Cognitive Score (GCS) and the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE). In contrast, there is a lack of regulation of p75NTR expression. Thus, trk defects may be a molecular marker for the transition from no cognitive impairment (NCI) to MCI, and from MCI to frank AD.