Regulation of calbindin and calretinin expression by brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was examined in primary cultures of cortical neurons using immunocytochemistry and northern blot analysis. Here we report that regulation of calretinin expression by BDNF is in marked contrast to that of calbindin. Indeed, chronic exposure of cultured cortical neurons for 5 days to increasing concentrations of BDNF (0.1-10 ng/ml) resulted in a concentration-dependent decrease in the number of calretinin-positive neurons and a concentration-dependent increase in the number of calbindin-immunoreactive neurons. Consistent with the immunocytochemical analysis, BDNF reduced calretinin mRNA levels and up-regulated calbindin mRNA expression, providing evidence that modifications in gene expression accounted for the changes in the number of calretinin- and calbindin-containing neurons. Among other members of the neurotrophin family, neurotrophin-4 (NT-4), which also acts by activating tyrosine kinase TrkB receptors, exerted effects comparable to those of BDNF, whereas nerve growth factor (NGF) was ineffective. As for BDNF and NT-4, incubation of cortical neurons with neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) also led to a decrease in calretinin expression. However, in contrast to BDNF and NT-4, NT-3 did not affect calbindin expression. Double-labeling experiments evidenced that calretinin- and calbindin-containing neurons belong to distinct neuronal subpopulations, suggesting that BDNF and NT-4 exert opposite effects according to the neurochemical phenotype of the target cell.