We have previously described the expression of a functional full-length trkC transcript for neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) receptor in oligodendroglia (OL) cells (Kumar and de Vellis, 1996). To date, the role of NT-3 and its signal transduction cascade in OL remains poorly defined. We report that the NT-3 responsive population of cells in the OL lineage are the progenitor cells and that the addition of NT-3 results in the autophosphorylation of p145TrkC. Furthermore, NT-3-mediated activation of p21ras and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase2 (ERK2), were also observed in the progenitor OL cells. These protein tyrosine kinase (PTK)-induced responses were sensitive to the presence of K252a, an inhibitor for tyrosine kinase. We have determined that NT-3 promotes progenitor OL cell commitment to enter into S-phase of cell cycle to initiate DNA synthesis, in a manner similar to platelet-derived growth factor-AA (PDGF-AA). NT-3 thus plays a role in cell proliferation when present alone, while augmenting the proliferation capacity of PDGF-AA as indicated by the nuclear binding activity of the transcription factor, E2F-1. Both the initiation and progression of mitotic events were confirmed by the expression of c-myc and cdc2 in the presence of NT-3, PDGF-AA or NT-3 plus PDGF-AA. A cell survival assay examining interleukin 1-beta-converting enzyme (ICE)-like protease-mediated cleavage of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) revealed an increase in OL progenitor cell death in the absence of NT-3 or PDGF-AA. In corroboration with our in vitro studies, in vivo results show an increased expression of the progenitor OL cell marker, glycerol phosphate dehydrogenase (GPDH) within 48 hr following an intracranial injection of NT-3, PDGF-AA, or NT-3 plus PDGF-AA in PN4-5 rats. These novel findings suggest that PDGF-AA potentiates the OL progenitor cell's ability to enter into the S-phase of the cell cycle and that NT-3 can augment this activity. Furthermore, PDGF-AA and NT-3 can block ICE-like protease-mediated PARP fragmentation in progenitor OL cells. These results provide important information which further delineates the signal transduction cascades and the role of NT-3 and PDGF-AA on OL progenitor cells.