Pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) and its receptors are abundant in the brain and particularly in the cerebellum of adult rats. In contrast, the occurrence of PACAP binding sites has not been investigated during ontogenesis. The aim of the present study was to determine the distribution and biochemical characteristics of PACAP binding sites in the rat cerebellum during postnatal development, and to examine the effect of PACAP on immature cerebellar granule cells. Autoradiographic studies revealed that PACAP binding sites are transiently expressed in a germinative matrix of the cerebellar cortex, the external granule cell layer, and in the medulla, from postnatal days 8 to 25. A population of PACAP binding sites persisted in the internal granule cell layer in the mature cerebellum. Emulsion-coated cytoautoradiography, performed on cultured immature granule cells from eight-day-old rat cerebellum, demonstrated that transient PACAP binding sites are expressed by cerebellar immature granule cells. Biochemical characterization of binding revealed the occurrence of two classes of PACAP recognition sites exhibiting, respectively, high (Kd = 0.39 +/- 0.08 nM) and low (Kd = 21.2 +/- 9.4 nM) affinity for PACAP27. The two naturally occurring forms PACAP38 and PACAP27 were equipotent in competing for [125I]PACAP27 binding. In contrast, the [Des-His1]PACAP38 analog was eight times less efficient and vasoactive intestinal polypeptide only induced weak displacement of the binding. Exposure of cultured immature granule cells to PACAP27 resulted in a dose-dependent stimulation of the production of cAMP, indicating that PACAP binding sites represent authentic receptors positively coupled to adenylate cyclase. These results show that PACAP receptors are actively expressed in the cerebellum of rats during postnatal development. The presence of functional PACAP receptors in the external granule cell layer suggests that PACAP may play a role in the control of proliferation and/or differentiation of granule cells.