High concentrations of pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) and its receptors have been detected in the rat cerebellum during ontogenesis. In particular, PACAP receptors are actively expressed in immature granule cells, suggesting that PACAP may act as a neurotrophic factor in the developing rat cerebellum. In the present study, we have investigated the effect of PACAP on cell survival and neurite outgrowth in cultured immature cerebellar granule cells. In control conditions, cultured granule cells undergo programmed cell death. Exposure of cultured cells to PACAP for 24 and 48 h provoked a significant increase in the number of living cells. The effect of PACAP on cell survival was inhibited by the PACAP antagonist PACAP(6-38). Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide was approximately 1000 times less potent than PACAP in promoting cell survival. PACAP also induced a significant increase in the number of processes and in the cumulated length of neurites borne by cultured neuroblasts. The present results demonstrate that PACAP promotes cell survival and neurite outgrowth in cultured immature granule cells. Since PACAP and its receptors are expressed in situ in the rat cerebellar cortex, these data strongly suggest that PACAP plays a physiological role in the survival and differentiation of cerebellar granule cells.