Previous work from this laboratory indicates that the differentiation of mouse midbrain dopaminergic neurons is influenced by estrogen. These effects may be transmitted either through classical nuclear receptors or via "nongenomic" mechanisms, including the interaction with hypothetical membrane receptors coupled to distinct intracellular signalling pathways. The latter mechanism seems to be of particular interest for the observed interactions of estrogen with developing dopaminergic neurons, insofar as estrogen has been shown to increase intracellular calcium levels within seconds. This study focuses on signal transduction cascades that might be activated by estrogen during differentiation of dopaminergic cells. Treatment with 17beta-estradiol or a membrane-impermeable estrogen-BSA construct (E-BSA) increased neurite growth and arborization of dopaminergic neurons. This effect was inhibited by antagonists of cAMP/ protein kinase A (PKA) and calcium signalling pathways but not by the estrogen receptor antagonist ICI. In addition, estrogen exposure stimulated the phosphorylation of CREB in midbrain dopaminergic cells as studied by quantitative double-labelling immunocytochemistry and gel shift assay. Again, this effect was antagonized only by the simultaneous treatment with inhibitors of the cAMP/PKA or calcium pathways and not by ICI pretreatment. These data together with our previous findings demonstrate that estrogen can interact with membrane binding sites on dopaminergic neurons, thereby stimulating the cAMP/PKA/phosphorylated cAMP-responsive element binding protein (CREB) signalling cascade, most likely through the activation of calcium-dependent kinases. In conclusion, rapid "nongenomic" estrogen signalling represents another mechanism, in addition to the activation of classical nuclear estrogen receptors, that is capable of influencing neuronal differentiation in the mammalian brain.