Neurotrophins acting through high-affinity tyrosine kinase receptors (trkA, trkB, and trkC) play a crucial role in regulating survival and maintenance of specific neuronal functions after injury. Adult motoneurons supplying extraocular muscles survive after disconnection from the target, but suffer dramatic changes in morphological and physiological properties, due in part to the loss of their trophic support from the muscle. To investigate the dependence of the adult rat extraocular motoneurons on neurotrophins, we examined trkA, trkB, and trkC mRNA expression after axotomy by in situ hybridization. trkA mRNA expression was detectable at low levels in unlesioned motoneurons, and its expression was downregulated 1 and 3 days after injury. Expression of trkB and trkC mRNAs was stronger, and after axotomy a simultaneous, but inverse regulation of both receptors was observed. Thus, whereas a considerable increase in trkB expression was seen about 2 weeks after axotomy, the expression of trkC mRNA had decreased at the same post-lesion period. Injured extraocular motoneurons also experienced an initial induction in expression of calcitonin gene-related peptide and a transient downregulation of cholinergic characteristics, indicating a switch in the phenotype from a transmitter-specific to a regenerative state. These results suggest that specific neurotrophins may contribute differentially to the survival and regenerative responses of extraocular motoneurons after lesion.