Manipulation of signal transduction pathways has been increasingly used to modulate tumor growth. We have investigated the effects of up-regulation of the cAMP/protein kinase A (PKA) pathway in cell lines and primary cultures of malignant gliomas. The malignant glioma cell line A-172 was treated with agonistic cAMP analogs dibutyryl cyclic AMP (dcAMP) and 8-bromo-cyclic AMP (8-Br-cAMP), an adenylate cyclase activator (forskolin), and a phosphodiesterase inhibitor (3-isobutyl-1-methyl-xanthene [IBMX]). Proliferation was determined by 3H-thymidine assay. Differentiation was measured by morphologic changes, glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) content, and invasion potential. Apoptosis was measured quantitatively by the TUNEL method, which labels DNA fragments using terminal transferase. Agonistic cAMP analogs, forskolin, and IBMX were found to decrease proliferation in A-172 cells after 24 hours. Treatment with 8-Br-cAMP for 24 hours caused an increase in GFAP and decrease in invasion. Apoptosis was induced after 48 hours in the presence of synergistic cAMP analogs for the Type II PKA isozyme, but not Type I PKA isozyme. Activation of PKA by increasing cAMP levels (forskolin, IBMX) or directly by cAMP analogs correlated with decreased proliferation, increased differentiation, and induction of apoptosis in A-172 cells. Modulation of the cAMP/PKA pathway may thus represent a possible target site for treating malignant gliomas.