Pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) gene expression was analyzed in PC12 cells. PC12 cells transfected with a PACAP promoter-luciferase reporter construct were utilized to investigate the effects of PACAP, either alone or in combination with nerve growth factor (NGF), on PACAP transcriptional response. PACAP induced transcription from the PACAP promoter through PACAP type I receptor (PAC1 receptor). PACAP gene transcription was also induced by NGF. Simultaneous treatment with PACAP and NGF resulted in a synergistic transcriptional response that was more than three times the predicted response, based on a simple additive effect of both agents. This synergism in transcriptional response paralleled the PACAP mRNA levels, as determined by RT-PCR and northern blotting. The level of PACAP mRNA peaked 3 h after stimulation and gradually returned to basal levels by 48 h. PC12 cells are known to express predominantly the hop isoform of the PAC1 receptor, which positively couples to both adenylate cyclase and phospholipase C. To determine the role of the cyclic AMP and protein kinase C pathways in PACAP gene expression, the effects of forskolin and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) were then examined. PMA did not alter PACAP mRNA levels but enhanced forskolin-induced PACAP mRNA expression. Down-regulation of protein kinase C blocked the ability of PACAP to stimulate PACAP mRNA expression. The mitogen-activated protein kinase extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) kinase 1/2 (MEK1/2) inhibitor PD98059 also blocked the PACAP mRNA expression induced by either PACAP or NGF but not that induced by a combination of PACAP and NGF. These results suggest that PACAP stimulates the PACAP gene expression in PC12 cells at least in part through activation of adenylate cyclase and protein kinase C signaling pathways and that the ERK1/2 cascade is involved in PACAP and NGF-induced PACAP gene expression, although redundant signaling pathways may also be involved. The present finding showing that PACAP in combination with NGF causes a synergistic increase in PACAP gene expression in PC12 cells supports the idea that PACAP acts as an autocrine regulatory factor.