The aims of the study were to measure the mRNA expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in bovine oocytes and early embryos derived from in vitro fertilization (IVF), parthenogenetic activation (PA) and nuclear transfer (NT), and to investigate the effects of BDNF on the development of IVF and parthenogenetic embryos. Bovine oocytes matured in vitro for 22 h were in vitro fertilized or parthenogenetic activated. By reverse transcription-PCR and quantitative real-time PCR, we found that germinal vesicle (GV) oocytes, metaphase II (MII) oocytes, 4-cell and 8-cell embryos, morulae, and blastocysts were all shown to express mRNA for BDNF. The mRNA levels for BDNF gene were different in bovine oocytes and IVF embryos at different stages (P < 0.01), with the highest expression in MII oocytes and the lowest expression in 8-cell embryos. The mRNA for BDNF was highly expressed in the PA and IVF blastocysts compared to the NT blastocysts (P < 0.01). Supplementation of culture media with BDNF at the concentration of 40 μg/l caused a significant increase in the rates of in vitro-fertilized blastocyst formation (P < 0.05) and parthenogenetic blastocyst formation (P < 0.05). However, the rate of oocyte cleavage in BDNF groups was not significantly different from that in the BDNF-free control (P > 0.05) after IVF or PA. We have also investigated the effects of BDNF on the growth of granulosa cells, which were used for co-culture of bovine early embryos. The results revealed that supplementation of culture media with 20 μg/l BDNF promoted the growth of granulosa cells (P < 0.01). Taken together, these results provided evidence for the role of neurotrophins in promoting early embryonic development as well as in the growth of granulosa cells by the co-culture system, indicating that BDNF can directly or indirectly promote bovine early embryo development.