Background High-grade glioma is incurable, with a short survival time and poor prognosis. The increased expression of p75 neurotrophin receptor (NTR) is a characteristic of high-grade glioma, but the potential significance of increased p75NTR in this tumor is not fully understood. Since p75NTR is the receptor for the precursor of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (proBDNF), it is suggested that proBDNF may have an impact on glioma. Methods In this study we investigated the expression of proBDNF and its receptors p75NTR and sortilin in 52 cases of human glioma and 13 cases of controls by immunochemistry, quantitative real-time PCR, and Western blot methods. Using C6 glioma cells as a model, we investigated the roles of proBDNF on C6 glioma cell differentiation, growth, apoptosis, and migration in vitro. Results We found that the expression levels of proBDNF, p75NTR, and sortilin were significantly increased in high-grade glioma and were positively correlated with the malignancy of the tumor. We also observed that tumors expressed proBDNF, p75NTR, and sortilin in the same cells with different subcellular distributions, suggesting an autocrine or paracrine loop. The ratio of proBDNF to mature BDNF was decreased in high-grade glioma tissues and was negatively correlated with tumor grade. Using C6 glioma cells as a model, we found that proBDNF increased apoptosis and differentiation and decreased cell growth and migration in vitro via p75NTR. Conclusions Our data indicate that proBDNF and its receptors are upregulated in high-grade glioma and might play an inhibitory effect on glioma.