Extracellular ATP is well known as a neurotransmitter and neuromodulator in the CNS of adults. However, little is known about the involvement of ATP during the development of mammalian brain. In the present study, we have examined the expression pattern of P2X receptor subtype mRNA and protein during perinatal rat brain development (from embryonic day (E) 10 to postnatal day (P) 16 brain). While P2X3 receptors appeared early at E11, they declined in the stages that follow. P2X2 and P2X7 receptors were expressed from E14 onwards, while P2X4, P2X5 and P2X6 receptors were expressed from P1 onwards. P2X1 receptor expression was not observed in any of the developmental ages examined. We investigated the effect of 100 microM ATP and alpha,beta-methylene ATP (alpha,beta-meATP; selective agonist for P2X1, P2X2/3 and P2X3 receptors) on motor axon outgrowth in collagen-embedded neural tube explant cultures. Both ATP- and alpha,beta-meATP-treated neural tubes showed a significant reduction in neurite outgrowth compared with the control explants. This inhibitory effect could not be reproduced by uridine triphosphate. In conclusion, all P2X receptor subtypes, except for P2X1, were strongly represented in the developing rat brain. ATP was shown to inhibit motor axon outgrowth during early embryonic neurogenesis, most likely via the P2X3 receptor. It is speculated that P2X7 receptors may be involved in programmed cell death during embryogenesis and that P2X4, P2X(5) and P2X6 receptors might be involved in postnatal neurogenesis.