Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has potential for the treatment of human neurodegenerative diseases. However, the general lack of success of neurotrophic factors in clinical trials has led to the suggestion that low molecular weight neurotrophic drugs may be better agents for therapeutic use. Here we describe small, dimeric peptides designed to mimic a pair of solvent-exposed loops important for the binding and activation of the BDNF receptor, trkB. The monomer components that make up the dimers were based on a monocyclic monomeric peptide mimic of a single loop of BDNF (loop 2) that we had previously shown to be an inhibitor of BDNF-mediated neuronal survival (O'Leary, P. D., and Hughes, R. A. (1998) J. Neurochem. 70, 1712-1721). Bicyclic dimeric peptides behaved as partial agonists with respect to BDNF, promoting the survival of embryonic chick sensory neurons in culture. We reasoned that the potency and/or efficacy of these compounds might be improved by reducing the conformational flexibility about their dimerizing linker. Thus, we designed a highly conformationally constrained tricyclic dimeric peptide and synthesized it using an efficient, quasi-one-pot approach. Although still a partial BDNF-like agonist, the tricyclic dimer was particularly potent in promoting neuronal survival in vitro (EC50 11 pM). The peptides described here, which are greatly reduced in size compared with the parent protein, could serve as useful lead compounds for the development of true neurotrophic drugs and indicate that the structure-based design approach could be used to obtain potent mimetics of other growth factors that dimerize their receptors.