We have examined the regulation of calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) promoter activity in primary cultures of rat trigeminal ganglia neurons. A viral vector was used to circumvent the potential complication of examining only a small subpopulation of cells in the heterogeneous cultures. Infection with high titers of recombinant adenovirus containing 1.25 kb of the rat CGRP promoter linked to the beta-galactosidase reporter gene (AdCGRP-lacZ) yielded expression in about 50% of the CGRP-expressing neurons. The CGRP-lacZ reporter gene was preferentially expressed in neurons, with 91% co-expression with endogenous CGRP. In contrast, an adenoviral vector containing a CMV-lacZ reporter was predominantly expressed in non-neuronal cells, with only 29% co-expression with CGRP. We then asked whether the CGRP promoter in the viral vector could be regulated by serotonin receptor type 1 (5-HT(1)) agonists. Promoter activity was decreased two- to threefold by treatment with five 5-HT(1B/D) agonists, including the triptan drugs sumatriptan, eletriptan, and rizatriptan that are used for migraine treatment. As controls, CMV promoter activity was not affected, and 5-HT(1B/D) receptor antagonists blocked the repression caused by sumatriptan and eletriptan. Thus, adenoviral gene transfer can be used in trigeminal ganglia neurons for studying the mechanisms of triptan drug action on CGRP synthesis.