Immature neurons, including fetal and tumoral cells, are used for investigating neuronal differentiation in vitro. The human neuroblastoma cell line NB69 could be induced to differentiate to dopamine or acetylcholine neurons by different compounds, including neurotrophins and activators of the protein kinases. In these NB69 cells dibutyryl cyclic AMP (dbcAMP) at 2 mM reduced the division rate and increased the levels of catecholamines, tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) activity, and monoamine oxidase activity. The dbcAMP also increased cell size, dendritic arborization, density of the sites for high-affinity dopamine uptake, and activity of choline acetyltransferase. In fetal rat midbrain neurons treatment with dbcAMP increased the levels of dopamine and the number of TH-immunoreactive neurons in the culture. When embryonic day 14 fetal midbrain neurons, previously exposed to 1 microM retinoic acid (a compound that severely reduces the number of fetal midbrain dopamine neurons), were treated with dbcAMP, the levels of dopamine and the number of TH-immunoreactive cells returned to normal levels. This suggests that dbcAMP induces the differentiation to dopamine neurons of quiescent progenitor or facilitates expression of the dopamine phenotype in immature neurons. Therefore, dbcAMP not only differentiates uncommitted immature dopamine neurons, but also reverses the antidopaminergic effects of retinoic acid. These properties of dbcAMP could be of therapeutic value in Parkinson's disease.