We have shown a reduction in beta adrenoceptor-linked, cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase [protein kinase A (PKA)] activity in fibroblasts of patients with major depression with melancholic features relative to normal volunteers. We evaluated a group of 35 patients with major depression subtyped by DSM-IV criteria as melancholic, atypical, and those not meeting either subtype designation ('non-subtyped') and 21 normal volunteers to ascertain whether or not the PKA activity abnormality was specific to melancholia. The melancholics showed marked reduction in cyclic AMP-stimulated PKA activity relative to normal volunteers. Although the atypicals were statistically significantly lower, almost all fell into the range for the normals. The non-subtyped group fell between the atypicals and the melancholics. Basal activity was significantly lower in atypical and melancholic groups. The data suggest that reduced PKA activity is consistently found in melancholic major depression and may not be seen with other depressive subtypes.