The molecular mechanisms underlying dendritic differentiation in neurons are currently poorly understood. We used slice cultures from rat cerebellum of postnatal day 8 to investigate the effect of protein kinase C (PKC) activity on dendritic development of Purkinje cells. After 12 days in culture under control conditions, Purkinje cells had developed a typical dendritic tree consisting of a few long primary dendrites with shorter side branches. Following treatment with the PKC agonist, phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate (PMA), the dendritic tree area was strongly reduced to 32% of control and primary dendrites were short with only a few side branches. Delayed addition of PMA after 6 days resulted in a retraction of existing dendrites, whereas discontinuation of PMA treatment after 6 days resulted in a recovery of the dendritic tree to almost control values. In the presence of the PKC inhibitor, 2-[1-(3-dimethylaminopropyl)indol-3-yl]-3-(indol-3-yl)maleimide (GF109203X), the dendritic tree area was increased to 158% of control with much more ramified branches after 12 days. The overall morphology of the cultures and the survival of Purkinje cells were unaffected by PKC modulators. Our data show that increased activity of PKC inhibits, and reduced activity of PKC promotes dendritic growth. This suggests that PKC activity is a critical regulator of dendritic growth and differentiation in cerebellar Purkinje cells.