Activation of muscarinic receptors in human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells with carbachol stimulated a rapid and large increase in early growth response-1 (Egr-1, also called zif268 and NGF1-A) protein levels and DNA binding activity. Egr-1 DNA binding activity was stimulated within 15 min of treatment with carbachol and maintained a maximum 20-fold increase over basal between 1 and 2 h after treatment, and the EC50 was approximately 1 microM carbachol. Carbachol-stimulated Egr-1 DNA binding activity was dependent on protein kinase C, as it was potently inhibited by GF109203X (IC50 approximately 0.1 microM) and was reduced by 85 +/- 5% by down-regulation of protein kinase C. Inhibitors of increases in intracellular calcium levels reduced carbachol-induced Egr-1 DNA binding activity by 25-35%. Carbachol-stimulated activation of Egr-1 was reduced 35% by genistein, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, and 60% by PD098059, an inhibitor of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinases 1/2 (MEK1/2) that activates extracellular-regulated kinases 1/2 (ERK1/2). A novel inhibitory action was caused by chronic (7-day) administration of sodium valproate but not by two other bipolar disorder therapeutic agents, lithium and carbamazepine. Valproate treatment reduced carbachol-stimulated Egr-1 DNA binding activity by 60% but did not alter carbachol-induced activation of ERK1/2 or p38 or increases in Egr-1 protein levels. These results reveal that muscarinic receptors activate Egr-1 through a signaling cascade primarily encompassing protein kinase C, MEK1/2, and ERK1/2 and that valproate substantially inhibits Egr-1 DNA binding activity stimulated by carbachol or protein kinase C.