Two different human prolactinoma phenotypes (responders and nonresponders), which are distinguished by different tumorigenic potential and different responsiveness to dopaminergic therapy, have recently been identified. Responders show low proliferation rate, low tumorigenic potential, and expression of D-2 receptors for dopamine (DA), while nonresponders are characterized by high proliferation rate, high tumorigenic potential, and lack of expression of DA D-2 receptors. In this study it has been shown that both gp140trk and gp75 components of nerve growth factor (NGF) receptor are expressed in responder prolactinoma cell lines. High levels of both NGF gene transcript and protein were also found in responders, and biologically active NGF was detectable in the media conditioned by these cells. Ablation of NGF production in responder cells by hybridization arrest of translation through NGF antisense oligonucleotides resulted in: 1) loss of secreted NGF; 2) loss of expression of gp75; 3) loss of expression of DA D-2 receptors; and 4) a remarkable increase in the cell proliferation rate. These results thus suggest that a NGF-mediated autocrine loop essential to control cell proliferation and to preserve some phenotypical characteristics of mammotroph cells is present in responder prolactinoma cell lines. Analysis of nonresponders showed that these cells express gp140trk but no detectable levels of gp75. In addition, no NGF mRNA or protein was detectable in nonresponders. Exposure of these cells to NGF resulted in the permanent expression of NGF mRNA and in the production and secretion of NGF protein, thus establishing the same NGF-mediated autocrine loop present in responders. As a result, it has been shown that nonresponder cells treated with NGF acquire and maintain most of the phenotypic characteristics of normal mammotroph cells. In conclusion, the present work reports that a NGF-mediated autocrine loop with an inhibitory role in the control of cell proliferation and tumor progression is active in the more differentiated DA-sensitive prolactinoma cell lines and is lost in the most malignant prolactinoma cells refractory to the dopaminergic therapy. Alterations in the expression of this autocrine loop thus may lead to cell transformation and tumor progression.