In utero cocaine exposure can affect CNS development. Previous studies showed that cocaine inhibits neuronal differentiation in a dose-dependent fashion, in nerve growth factor (NGF)-stimulated PC12 cells, without affecting cell viability. NGF activates intracellular signaling proteins, specific immediateearly genes (IEG) including a transient peak of c-fos expression, and induction of late genes expression, leading to the neuronal phenotype. We hypothesized that cocaine interferes with NGF signaling. Therefore, we examined the pattern of c-fos expression in our cellular model. Time course of c-fos expression up to 72 h was determined in cells treated with NGF 20 ng/ml and cocaine 10 μg/ml (a moderately toxic level) by RT-PCR analysis. Total RNA was isolated from cells, and levels of c-fos mRNA were estimated using gene-specific primers. In both control and experimental conditions, c-fos level was maximal at 0.5 h. In the control cells, c-fos expression declined rapidly to less than 5% of the 0.5-h value, while in the cocaine-treated cells, c-fos level persisted through the 72-h exposure. Adding c-fos antisense to cells treated with NGF and cocaine resulted in significant improvement of neurite out-growth, from 28% (NGF + cocaine) to 89% (NGF + cocaine + c-fos antisense) of control differentiation after 72 h of exposure (Dunnet's T < 3.24). Inhibitory effects of cocaine on NGF- induced PC12 differentiation may be attributed to alteration of c-fos expression. Further studies will be required to examine the role of D1 receptor activation in mediating c-fos expression and to explore the effects of cocaine on other IEGs.