The developing chick retina undergoes at least two discrete periods of programmed cell death. The earlier period coincides with the main onset of neuron birth and migration (embryonic day 5-7), whereas the latter one corresponds to the well-documented process of retinal ganglion cell death following tectal innervation (embryonic day 10-14; Rager, G. H. (1980) Adv. Anat. Embryol. Cell Biol. 63, 1-92). In the early period, apoptosis is induced by nerve growth factor (NGF) acting via its p75 receptor (Frade, J. M., Rodríguez-Tébar, A. and Barde, Y.-A. (1996) Nature 383, 166-168). Here, we show that the application of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to chick embryos in ovo prevented retinal cell death in the early period, whereas exogenously applied NGF and neurotrophin-3 had no such effect. The addition of BDNF to embryos resulted in about 70% increase in the number of retinal ganglion cells in both E6 and E9 retinas relative to controls. BDNF is first expressed in both the pigment epithelium and neural retina of embryonic day 4 embryos, and at the same stage of development, its TrkB receptor is expressed in the neural retina. Our data indicate that early cell death is an important process in the neurogenesis of retinal ganglion cells and is regulated by locally produced BDNF.