Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was the first purified molecule identified to directly support the development of mesencephalic dopamine neurons. However, its physiologic role has remained unknown. Based on patterns of expression, it is unlikely to serve as a target-derived neurotrophic factor, but it may instead act locally in the mesencephalon, either released by afferent projections, or in autocrine fashion. To assess a possible local role, we blocked BDNF signaling in the substantia nigra (SN) of postnatal rats by injection of either neutralizing antibodies or a peptide antagonist. These treatments increased the magnitude of developmental cell death in the SN, indicating that endogenous local BDNF does play a regulatory role. However, we also find that elimination of BDNF in brain throughout postnatal development in BDNF(fl/fl):Nestin-Cre mice has no effect on the adult number of SN dopamine neurons. We postulate that other forms of trophic support may compensate for the elimination of BDNF during early development. Although the number of SN dopamine neurons is unchanged, their organization is disrupted. We conclude that BDNF plays a physiologic role in the postnatal development of SN dopamine neurons.