The norepinephrine transporter (NET) terminates noradrenergic neurotransmission at synapse by high-affinity sodium-dependent reuptake into presynaptic terminals, and thus serves as a marker of differentiation of noradrenergic neurons. In the present study, we studied the regulatory mechanism of the expression of NET-mRNA in cultured neurons from newborn rat superior cervical ganglia (SCG) and in clonal rat pheochromocytoma cells (PC12) SCG neurons in culture expressed a high level of NET-mRNA, which was further increased 2.5-5 fold from day 1 to day 13. Treatment of SCG neurons with the cholinergic differentiation factor (CDF)/leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) and ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF), neurokines known to induce the switch from adrenergic to cholinergic phenotype in SCG neurons, led to the suppression of the level of NET-mRNA in a concentration dependent manner, concomitantly with the suppression of mRNA for tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), an adrenergic marker enzyme in cultured SCG neurons. On the other hand, retinoic acid, a compound which is also known to increase the expression of choline acetyltransferase, a cholinergic marker enzyme, and suppress the expression of TH in the cultured SCG neurons and PCI2 cells, rather increased the level of NET-mRNA in these two cell populations. Alterations of the Na(+)-dependent norepinephrine transport activity which paralleled the changes in the NET-mRNA levels were confirmed by the [3H]norepinephrine uptake assay. These results indicate that cell extrinsic factors regulate the expressions of NET and TH genes by a common as well as by distinct mechanisms.