The neurotrophins are growth factors required by discrete neuronal cell types for survival and maintenance, with a broad range of activities in the central and peripheral nervous system in the developing and adult mammal. This review examines their role in diverse disease states, including Alzheimer's disease, depression, pain and asthma. In addition, the role of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in synaptic plasticity and memory formation is discussed. Unlike the other neurotrophins, BDNF is secreted in an activity-dependent manner that allows the highly controlled release required for synaptic regulation. Evidence is discussed which shows that sequestration of NGF (nerve growth factor) is able to reverse symptoms of inflammatory pain and asthma in animal models. Both pain and asthma show an underlying pathophysiology linked to increases in endogenous NGF and subsequent NGF-dependent increase in BDNF. Conversely, in Alzheimer's disease, there is a role for NGF in the treatment of the disease and a recent clinical trial has shown benefit from its exogenous application. In addition, reductions in BDNF, and changes in the processing and usage of NGF, are evident and it is possible that both NGF and BDNF play a part in the aetiology of the disease process. This highly selective choice of functions and disease states related to neurotrophin function, although in no way comprehensive, illustrates the importance of the neurotrophins in the brain, the peripheral nervous system and in non-neuronal tissues. Ways in which the neurotrophins, their receptors or agonists/antagonists may act therapeutically are discussed.

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