The present study aimed to investigate the effects of human brain-derived neurotrophic factor (hBDNF) on the differentiation of bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) into neuron-like cells. Lentiviral vectors carrying the hBDNF gene were used to modify the bone marrow stromal cells (BMSCs) of Sprague-Dawley (SD) rats. The rat BMSCs were isolated, cultured and identified. A lentivirus bearing hBDNF and enhanced green fluorescent protein (eGFP) genes was subcultured and used to infect the SD rat BMSCs. The expression of eGFP was observed under a fluorescence microscope to determine the infection rate and growth of the transfected cells. Methylthiazolyldiphenyl-tetrazolium bromide (MTT) was used to detect the proliferation rate of cells following transfection. Reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) and western blot analysis were used to detect the expression levels of hBDNF. Differentiation of neuron-like cells was induced in vitro and the differentiation rate of the induced neural-like cells was compared with that in control groups and analyzed statistically. In the cultured cells, flow cytometry demonstrated positive expression of cluster of differentiation (CD)90 and CD44, and negative expression of CD34 and CD45. The proliferation rate of the rat BMSCs increased following gene transfection. The expression of hBDNF-eGFP was detected in the BMSCs of the experimental group. The differentiation rate of hBDNF-modified cells into neuron-like cells in the experimental group was higher compared with that in empty plasmid and untransfected negative control groups. The difference was statistically significant (P<0.05). Thus, BDNF gene transfection is able to promote the differentiation of BMSCs into neuron-like cells. BDNF may play an important role in the differentiation of MSCs into neuron-like cells.