Ciliary neurotrophic factor and an avian homolog, growth promoting activity, are members of the cytokine/neurokine family of trophic factors and have been proposed to function as survival and developmental factors for ciliary ganglion neurons in vivo. Here we identify for the first time functional receptors for ciliary neurotrophic factor and growth promoting activity on cultured ciliary ganglion neurons. [(125)I]Rat ciliary neurotrophic factor binding studies indicate that rat ciliary neurotrophic factor and growth promoting activity bind to these receptors with a single affinity, while human ciliary neurotrophic factor recognizes both a high- and low-affinity site. Comparison of the relative potency of human ciliary neurotrophic factor and avian growth promoting activity in biological assays indicates that growth promoting activity is three to five times more active in promoting survival and in regulating acetylcholine receptors. The binding of ciliary neurotrophic factor is specific, sensitive to phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C and partially inhibited by leukemia inhibitory factor, but not inhibited by other members of the human neurokine family, including interleukin-6, interleukin-22 and oncostatin M. Cross-linking of [(125)I]rat ciliary neurotrophic factor to ciliary neurons results in the specific labeling of three proteins with estimated molecular masses of 153,000, 81,000 and 72,000. Only the 81,000 molecular weight component is released from the cells after treatment with phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C, suggesting a membrane attachment via a glycosylphosphatidylinositol linkage. Stimulation with ciliary neurotrophic factor or growth promoting activity, but not by other neurokines, results in the rapid tyrosine phosphorylation of a 90,000 molecular weight protein that is inhibited by pretreatment with phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C. In conclusion, we report here the pharmacological and functional properties of ciliary neurotrophic factor receptors on embryonic ciliary ganglion neurons. These results provide the means for elaborating the molecular mechanisms of ciliary neurotrophic factor action and understanding its physiological role in a defined neuronal population.