The influence of glutamate and its analogues on the expression of BDNF mRNA was studied in cultured cerebellar granule cells. Four-hour exposure of the neurons to the glutamate receptor agonists, quisqualate, kainate, alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionate (AMPA) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA), increased levels of BDNF mRNA. Glutamate in combination with antagonists of the ionotropic glutamate receptors, 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione (CNQX), D-2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate (AP-5) and/or (+)-5-methyl-10,11-dihydro-5H-dibenzocyclohepten-5,10-imine hydrogen maleate (MK-801), also increased levels of BDNF mRNA. However, the addition of glutamate itself to the cultures produced severe neuronal death and failed to increase the mRNA level. The onset of the increase in BDNF mRNA by kainate and NMDA lagged behind that by quisqualate. These results indicate that the non-ionotropic glutamate receptor might be involved in the induction of BDNF mRNA. Quisqualate is known to be a potent agonist of both the AMPA/kainate receptor and the metabotropic glutamate receptor. The specific antagonists of the AMPA/kainate receptor, CNQX and 6,7-dinitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione (DNQX) failed to block the increase of BDNF mRNA by quisqualate. Moreover, the desensitization of the metabotropic glutamate receptor by phorbol ester abolished the increase of BDNF mRNA by quisqualate. These results suggest that stimulation of the metabotropic glutamate receptor may be the most predominant component to increase BDNF mRNA in cerebellar granule cell culture.