The intracellular signaling pathways mediating the neurotrophic actions of pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) were investigated in human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells. Previously, we showed that SH-SY5Y cells express the PAC(1) and VIP/PACAP receptor type 2 (VPAC(2)) receptors, and that the robust cAMP production in response to PACAP and vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) was mediated by PAC(1) receptors (Lutz et al. 2006). Here, we investigated the ability of PACAP-38 to differentiate SH-SY5Y cells by measuring morphological changes and the expression of neuronal markers. PACAP-38 caused a concentration-dependent increase in the number of neurite-bearing cells and an up-regulation in the expression of the neuronal proteins Bcl-2, growth-associated protein-43 (GAP-43) and choline acetyltransferase: VIP was less effective than PACAP-38 and the VPAC(2) receptor-specific agonist, Ro 25-1553, had no effect. The effects of PACAP-38 and VIP were blocked by the PAC(1) receptor antagonist, PACAP6-38. As observed with PACAP-38, the adenylyl cyclase activator, forskolin, also induced an increase in the number of neurite-bearing cells and an up-regulation in the expression of Bcl-2 and GAP-43. PACAP-induced differentiation was prevented by the adenylyl cyclase inhibitor, 2',5'-dideoxyadenosine (DDA), but not the protein kinase A (PKA) inhibitor, H89, or by siRNA-mediated knock-down of the PKA catalytic subunit. PACAP-38 and forskolin stimulated the activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAP; p38 MAP kinase) and c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK). PACAP-induced neuritogenesis was blocked by the MEK1 inhibitor PD98059 and partially by the p38 MAP kinase inhibitor SB203580. Activation of exchange protein directly activated by cAMP (Epac) partially mimicked the effects of PACAP-38, and led to the phosphorylation of ERK but not p38 MAP kinase. These results provide evidence that the neurotrophic effects of PACAP-38 on human SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells are mediated by the PAC(1) receptor through a cAMP-dependent but PKA-independent mechanism, and furthermore suggest that this involves Epac-dependent activation of ERK as well as activation of the p38 MAP kinase signaling pathway.