During development the viability of immature neurons may depend upon retrograde, anterograde, or paracrine trophic support. Using I-125-labeled peptides we show that there is substantial and rapid anterograde transport of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and, to a lesser extent, neurotrophin-4/5 (NT-4/5) to central visual target areas in the neonatal rat brain. Six hours after unilateral intraocular injection, all retinorecipient regions in the thalamus and midbrain are heavily labeled. Intraocular application of physiologically relevant doses of neurotrophin has a marked effect on cells in the developing superior colliculus (SC): 24 h postinjection of BDNF or NT-4/5, the number of pyknotic profiles in the contralateral superficial SO significantly decreases, while total cell numbers increase relative to ipsilateral SO. This increase is primarily associated with neurons. The data support the hypothesis that BDNF and NT-4/5 are anterograde survival factors for postsynaptic cells in the developing rat SO.