Chronic stress produces structural changes and neuronal damage especially in the hippocampus. Because neurotrophic factors affect neuron survival, we questioned whether they might be relevant to the heightened vulnerability of hippocampal neurons following stress. To begin investigating this possibility, we examined the effects of immobilization stress (2 hr/d) on the expression of neurotrophic factors in rat brains using in situ hybridization. We found that single or repeated immobilization markedly reduced brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) mRNA levels in the dentate gyrus and hippocampus. In contrast, NT-3 mRNA levels were increased in the dentate gyrus and hippocampus in response to repeated but not acute stress. Stress did not affect the expression of neurotrophin-4, or tyrosine receptor kinases (trkB or C). Corticosterone negative feedback may have contributed in part to the stress-induced decreases in BDNF mRNA levels, but stress still decreased BDNF in the dentate gyrus in adrenalectomized rats suggesting that additional components of the stress response must also contribute to the observed changes in BDNF. However, corticosterone-mediated increases in NT-3 mRNA expression appeared to be primarily responsible for the effects of stress on NT-3. These findings demonstrate that BDNF and NT-3 are stress-responsive genes and raise the possibility that alterations in the expression of these or other growth factors might be important in producing some of the physiological and pathophysiological effects of stress in the hippocampus.