The capacity of embryonic stem cells (ES cells) to differentiate into neuronal cells represents a potential source for neuronal replacement and a model for studying factors controlling early stages of neuronal differentiation. Various molecules have been used to induce such differentiation but so far neuropeptides acting via functional G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) have not been investigated. Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) and pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) are neuropeptides expressed in early development which affect neuronal precursor proliferation and neuronal differentiation. VIP and PACAP share two common receptors (VPAC1 and VPAC2 receptors) while only PACAP binds with high affinity to PAC1 receptors. The aim of the study was to determine whether VIP and PACAP could produce functional neuronal differentiation of ES cells. Mouse ES cells were allowed to aggregate in embryoid bodies (EBs) in the presence or not of VIP and PACAP for 1 week. VIP and PACAP potently increased the proportion of EB-derived cells expressing specifically a neuronal phenotype shown by immunocytochemistry and neurite outgrowth without altering glial cell number. Binding and RT-PCR analyses demonstrated the presence of VPAC2 and PAC1 receptors on ES cells. Accordingly, both peptides increased cyclic AMP and intracellular calcium. In contrast, EB-derived cells only expressed a functional PAC1 receptor, suggesting a switch in GPCR phenotype during ES cell differentiation. These original data demonstrate that functional GPCRs for VIP and PACAP are present on ES cells and that these neuropeptides may induce their differentiation into a neuronal phenotype. It opens an exciting new field for neuropeptide regulation of tissue ontogenesis.