We have previously shown that brain-derived neurotrophin factor (BDNF) increases dendritic spine density and the proportion of stubby spines in apical dendrites of CA1 pyramidal neurons of hippocampal slice cultures maintained in serum-free media. We show here that serum withdrawal causes an increase in the proportion of thin spines and a decrease in the fraction of stubby spines, without changing the overall density of dendritic spines. When slices are maintained in serum-containing media, BDNF also increased spine density but had the opposite effect on spine morphology: it increased the proportion of mushroom and thin spines and decreased the proportion of stubby spines. Intriguingly, slices maintained in serum media showed a lower p75NTR-to-TrkB expression level than serum-free slices, even after BDNF exposure. The differential actions of BDNF on spine morphology depending on the presence of serum in culture media, together with the difference in neurotrophin receptor expression are reminiscent of opposing functional signaling by p75NTR and Trk receptors, and reveal a complex modulation of dendritic morphology by BDNF signaling. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.