Three related orphan nuclear receptors that are expressed in the brain, NGFI-B, Nurr1, and NOR-1, were studied to compare their function as transcriptional activators. NGFI-B was able to activate (in the absence of added hormone) in CV1 cells both an NGFI-B-responsive luciferase reporter gene (containing eight copies of a response element for NGFI-B upstream of a basal prolactin promoter driving the luciferase gene, NBRE(8)-LUC), a similar thyroid hormone-receptor-responsive reporter gene (TRE(3)-LUC), and a reporter gene with an authentic promoter from a Xenopus vitellogenin gene containing two binding sites for the estrogen receptor (vit-LUC). NGFI-B activated NBRE(8)-LUC and TRE(3)-LUC (but not the vitLUC) with an amino-terminal activation domain. Nurr1 was less promiscuous as a transcriptional activator, activating.the NBRE(8)-LUC better than NGFI-B, but less than NGFI-B at the other reporter genes. NOR-1 activated only the NBRE(8)-LUC reporter gene. These results indicate that closely related nuclear receptors may differentiate between response elements or promoters and that different activation mechanisms exist depending on the promoter. This may contribute to regulation of specificity of target gene expression in the brain.