Cell division, cell death, and remodeling of connections are major features of the construction of the mammalian CNS. We have begun to address the role of neurotrophins in these events through characterization of the expression of their receptors in the developing ferret visual system. By use of chemical cross-linking of iodinated neurotrophins, proteins corresponding to trkB, trkC, and p75 were identified as receptors for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) throughout development. BDNF was also cross- linked to a truncated form of trkB that lacks the tyrosine kinase domain (trkB. T1) in retinal target tissues and in cortex. At the earliest developmental age examined (E24), the ratio of full-length to truncated trkB is > > 1 in the retinal target tissues, LGN and superior colliculus. During the ensuing period of retinal ganglion cell death and segregation into eye-specific layers, the amount of truncated trkB increases markedly relative to full-length trkB. By P27, truncated trkB is the predominant receptor for BDNF in the retinal target tissues and this pattern is maintained into adulthood. Within all subdivisions of visual cortex including the ventricular zone (VZ), intermediate zone (IZ), and cortical plate (CP), similar profiles of bands are observed. The developmental increase in abundance of truncated trkB relative to full-length occurs earliest in the VZ, with a major increase between E30 and P3. In the IZ, this shift to a predominance of truncated trkB occurs between P15 and P30, while in the CP the shift is even further delayed, not occurring until after P30. Within each subdivision of cortex, the shift to a predominance of truncated trkB occurs at times that correlate with the onset of cell death and maturation of axonal connections. This study demonstrates that members of the trk family, previously identified in the CNS on the basis of mRNA transcripts, are present as receptors with specific binding affinities for BDNF and NT- 3. Moreover, the correspondence between the developmental shift from full-length to truncated trkB and the critical periods for cell fate determination, cell death, and axonal remodeling suggests an important role for neurotrophic factors in the development of the visual system.