The ability of an oocyte to support early embryonic development requires both nuclear and cytoplasmic maturation. We have investigated the effects of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) on maturation of the bovine oocyte and embryo development after parthenogenetic activation. By RT-PCR and immunohistochemistry, cumulus and oocytes were shown to express mRNA and protein for BDNF and the p75 common neurotrophin receptor. However, mRNA for the BDNF-specific full length and truncated isoforms of the TrkB receptor are only detected in cumulus, suggesting that oocytes and cumulus differ in their capacity to respond to neurotrophin signalling. In in vitro maturation experiments, the proportion of cumulus oocyte complexes maturing to metaphase II was not altered by BDNF in groups lacking fetal calf serum (FCS), but was significantly lower than the positive control containing 10% FCS (P <0.01). However, after maturation, the proportion of parthenogenetically activated oocytes forming blastocysts was highest for 10 ng/ml BDNF (24%, n = 95) followed by 100 ng/ml BDNF (18%, n = 91) and 10% FCS (15%, n = 103), which in turn were greater than no serum (10%, n = 83; P <0.01). Maturation in the presence of a BDNF blocking antibody resulted in a blastocyst yield that was comparable to the absence of serum, and lower than in the presence of BDNF (P <0.01). Similar effects on progression to metaphase II and blastocyst formation were observed using oocytes matured without cumulus. Together, these results provide the first evidence for a role for neurotrophins in promoting oocyte cytoplasmic competence to support embryonic development, despite being insufficient in the absence of serum to enhance nuclear maturation.