The neurotrophins are signaling factors important for the differentiation and survival of distinct neuronal populations during development. To test whether the neurotrophins also function in the mature nervous system, the effects of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), nerve growth factor (NGF), and neurotrophic factor 3 (NT-3) on the strength of synaptic transmission in hippocampal slices were determined. Application of BDNF or NT-3 produced a dramatic and sustained (2 to 3 hours) enhancement of synaptic strength at the Schaffer collateral-CA1 synapses; NGF was without significant effect. The enhancement was blocked by K252a, an inhibitor of receptor tyrosine kinases. BDNF and NT-3 decreased paired-pulse facilitation, which is consistent with a possible presynaptic modification. Long-term potentiation could still be elicited in slices previously potentiated by exposure to the neurotrophic factors, which implies that these two forms of plasticity may use at least partially independent cellular mechanisms.