THE effect of an intravitreal injection of NMDA on the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in retinal ganglion cells was investigated in rats. Forty-eight hours after intravitreal injection of NMDA retinal ganglion cell BDNF immunoreactivity was practically obliterated, as was the choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) immunoreactivity associated with a subset of amacrine cells. However, 2 h following treatment with NMDA the BDNF immunoreactivity and BDNF mRNA associated with the ganglion cells was enhanced while the amacrine cell ChAT immunoreactivity was clearly reduced and the levels of mRNA coding for rhodopsin and Thy-1 did not change. However, 4 h after NMDA injection the increase in BDNF mRNA was now no longer apparent. The results show that synthesis of BDNF is increased in the ganglion cells immediately following an insult by NMDA. It is suggested that this is a natural protective mechanism of rat retinal ganglion cells.