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Neutrotrophins are increasingly appreciated as potential modulators of neuronal function in the adult central nervous system (CNS). To describe the neurotrophin environment within the adult CNS, mRNA and protein expression patterns of neurotrophins-3 and −4 and of brain-derived neurotrophin were investigated in adult rat spinal cord and brain. Co-localization studies with CNS cell type-specific markers demonstrates that multiple cell types, including both neurons and glia, express these neurotrophins in the normal adult CNS. Although widely implicated in important CNS functions such as synaptic plasticity, biological activity of endogenous CNS neurotrophins has not been directly demonstrated. With a sensitive neurite outgrowth bioassay we demonstrate that CNS neurotrophins elicit neurite outgrowth and are biologically active. Moreover, antibody-blocking studies suggest that these three neurotrophins may comprise the bulk of adult CNS neurotrophic activity.