Tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) is the rate-limiting enzyme in catecholamine synthesis. Its activity is known to be controlled acutely (minutes) by phosphorylation and chronically (days) by protein synthesis. Using bovine adrenal chromaffin cells we found that nicotine, acting via nicotinic receptors, sustained the phosphorylation of TH at Ser40 for up to 48 h. Nicotine also induced sustained activation of TH, which for the first 24 h was completely independent of TH protein synthesis, and the phosphorylation of TH at Ser31. Imipramine did not inhibit the acute phosphorylation of TH at Ser40 or TH activation induced by nicotine, but did inhibit the sustained responses to nicotine seen at 24 h. The protein kinase(s) responsible for TH phosphorylation at Ser40 switched from being protein kinase C (PKC) independent in the acute phase to PKC dependent in the sustained phase. Sustained phosphorylation and activation of TH were also observed with histamine and angiotensin II. Sustained phosphorylation of TH at Ser40 provides a novel mechanism for increasing TH activity and this leads to increased catecholamine synthesis. Sustained phosphorylation of TH may be a selective target for drugs or pathology in neurons that contain TH and synthesize dopamine, noradrenaline or adrenaline.