The expression of nerve growth factor receptors (NGFRs) was studied in the developing inner ear with in situ hybridization in chick embryos and with immunocytochemistry in rat embryos to determine sites of possible functions of NGF or NGF-like molecules in inner ear development. NGFR expression in the chick otocyst and acoustic ganglion is compared with epithelial differentiation and the onset of afferent innervation as determined with fluorescent carbocyanine tracers. In the inner ear of the chick embryo, NGFR mRNA expression shows an alternating pattern in mesenchymal and epithelial tissues. NGFR mRNA is heavily expressed in the mesenchyme surrounding the otocyst (E2-3), ceases at E3-5, and reappears in a thin layer of mesenchymal cells surrounding the membraneous epithelia (E5-13). In the otocyst epithelium, NGFR mRNA expression develops in one anterior and one posterior focus at E3-4.5. NGFR mRNA is expressed in the primordia of the ampullary cristae (E5-7) and possibly the anlage of the utricle; label transiently concentrates in the planum semilunatum of the cristae ampullares and in superior portions of the semicircular canals at E9, but is not seen in differentiating hair cells. In the acoustic ganglion, NGFR mRNA expression begins at E4; at the same time, the first peripheral acoustic nerve processes penetrate the otic epithelium (E4-4.5). The acoustic ganglia remain weakly NGFR mRNA-labeled in the posthatch animal. In the rat embryo, NGFR immunoreactivity is present in the auditory placode at E9, in the periotic mesenchyme at E9-10, and in the medial half of the otocyst at E10-11. At E12, epithelial NGFR expression becomes restricted anteriorly and posteriorly in a pattern similar to that of the chick otocyst and ceases at E13. NGFR immunoreactivity appears transiently in pillar cells of the cochlea in the third week of gestation. NGFR and NGFR mRNA is expressed after E11 in the acoustic ganglia. While NGFR transcripts are expressed in the cochlear ganglion cell bodies, NGFR protein becomes restricted to neuronal processes by the third week of gestation. The vestibular, but not the cochlear (spiral) ganglia remain NGFR-labeled in the adult rat. Onset of NGFR mRNA expression in the acoustic ganglion during the period of afferent fiber ingrowth into the otocyst epithelium is consistent with the hypothesis that NGF-like molecules may have a neurotrophic function for acoustic ganglion cells. Transient expression of NGFRs in secretory cells of the vestibular endorgan and pillar cells in the organ of Corti implicate a role for neurotrophins in the differentiation of these epithelial cell types.