The expression of the methylated DNA-binding protein MeCP2 increases during neuronal development, which suggests that this epigenetic factor is crucial for neuronal terminal differentiation. We evaluated dendritic and axonal development in embryonic day-18 hippocampal neurons in culture by measuring total length and counting branch point numbers at 4 days in vitro, well before synapse formation. Pyramidal neurons transfected with a plasmid encoding a small hairpin RNA (shRNA) to knockdown endogenous Mecp2 had shorter dendrites than control untransfected neurons, without detectable changes in axonal morphology. On the other hand, overexpression of wildtype (wt) human MECP2 increased dendritic branching, in addition to axonal branching and length. Consistent with reduced neuronal growth and complexity in Rett syndrome (RTT) brains, overexpression of human MECP2 carrying missense mutations common in RTT individuals (R106W or T158M) reduced dendritic and axonal length. One of the targets of MeCP2 transcriptional control is the Bdnf gene. Indeed, endogenous Mecp2 knockdown increased the intracellular levels of BDNF protein compared to untransfected neurons, suggesting that MeCP2 represses Bdnf transcription. Surprisingly, overexpression of wt MECP2 also increased BDNF levels, while overexpression of RTT-associated MECP2 mutants failed to affect BDNF levels. The extracellular BDNF scavenger TrkB-Fc prevented dendritic overgrowth in wt MECP2-overexpressing neurons, while overexpression of the Bdnf gene reverted the dendritic atrophy caused by Mecp2-knockdown. However, this effect was only partial, since Bdnf increased dendritic length only to control levels in mutant MECP2-overexpressing neurons, but not as much as in Bdnf-transfected cells. Our results demonstrate that MeCP2 plays varied roles in dendritic and axonal development during neuronal terminal differentiation, and that some of these effects are mediated by autocrine actions of BDNF. © 2008 Elsevier Inc.