The hypothesis that target-derived neurotrophic factors are essential for the survival, differentiation and maintenance of sensory, sympathetic and motor neurons has been well supported by analysis of mice bearing null mutations in the neurotrophins and their receptors. However, the localization of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in a population of dorsal root ganglia (DRG) sensory neurons (Ernfors et al. 1990 b; Ernfors & Persson 1991; Schecterson & Bothwell 1992) suggested the additional possibility that BDNF could act in a paracrine or autocrine manner to mediate neuronal survival. We tested this hypothesis in cultured adult DRG neurons, which survive as single cells in microwells in the absence of added trophic factors (Lindsay 1988). About 35% of these neurons were specifically killed by BDNF antisense oligonucleotide administration in a dose-dependent manner, with no effect of sense oligonuclcotides. Antisense administration was accompanied by an 80% decrease in BDNF protein levels over the first 24 h of treatment (Acheson et al. 1995). The BDNF autocrine loop that we propose to be present in sensory neurons may be representative of a broader phenomenon in the nervous system as a whole, where the balance of neurotrophic support may shift during development from target-derived to paracrine or autocrine modes. Perhaps as a consequence of this developmental shift, the survival of both peripheral nervous system (PNS) and central nervous system (CNS) neurons in the adult is less affected by axotomy or target removal when compared to their response during development.