Insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) are implicated in the development of the vertebrate neural circuitry, and increase neurite growth in vitro and in vivo. The construction of the cytoskeleton is necessary for growth of axons and dendrites, and the neurofilament (NF) 68 kDa and 170 kDa proteins assemble to help form major fibrillar elements of the neurite cytoskeleton. We report that physiological concentrations of insulin, IGF-I or IGF-II increased the contents of 68 kDa NF, 170 kDa NF, alpha-tubulin, and beta-tubulin mRNAs, relative to total RNA, in cultured human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells. In contrast, the relative contents of histone 3.3 mRNA, and poly(A)+ RNA were not increased. Ligand concentrations which increased NF mRNAs were very similar to those which increased neurite outgrowth. Although each gene was evidently independently regulated, the 68 kDa NF, 170 kDa NF, alpha-tubulin, and beta-tubulin mRNAs were nevertheless all transiently elevated over approximately the same time interval in response to insulin. These data, when considered together with studies by others with nerve growth factor, show that the 68 kDa and 170 kDa NF mRNAs are elevated in a biochemical pathway activated in common during neurite outgrowth directed by insulin, IGF-I, IGF-II, and nerve growth factor.