Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) exerts a multiplicity of effects on a broad spectrum of target cells, including retinal neurons. To investigate how this functional complexity relates to the regulation of CNTF receptor alpha (CNTFR alpha) expression, we have studied the developmental expression of the receptor protein in chick retina by using immunocytochemistry. During the course of development, the receptor is expressed in all retinal layers, but three levels of specificity can be observed. First, the expression is regulated temporally with immunoreactivity observed in ganglion cells (embryonic day 8 [E8] to adult), photoreceptor precursors (E8-E12), amacrine cells (E10 to adult), bipolar cells (E12-E18), differentiated rods (E18 to adult), and horizontal cells (adult). Second, expression is restricted to distinct subpopulations of principal retinal neurons: preferentially, large ganglion cells; subpopulations of amacrine cells, including a particular type of cholinergic neuron; a distinctly located type of bipolar cell; and rod photoreceptors. Third, expression exhibits subcellular restriction: it is confined largely to dendrites in mature amacrine cells and is restricted entirely to outer segments in mature rods. These data correlate with CNTF effects on the survival of ganglion cells and mature photoreceptors, the in vitro differentiation of photoreceptor precursors and cholinergic amacrine cells, and the number of bipolar cells in culture described here or in previous studies. Thus, our results demonstrate an exceptional degree of complexity with respect to the regulation of neuronal CNTFR alpha expression in a defined model system. This suggests that the same signaling pathway is used to mediate a variety of regulatory influences, depending on the developmental stage and cell type.