To investigate the influence of neuronal activity on the expression of neural recognition molecules, cultures of neural cell lines and dissociated cells of early postnatal mouse cerebellum were maintained in the presence of elevated concentrations of K+ and the glutamate agonist N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA). Levels of expression of the neural adhesion molecules L1 and N-CAM at the cell surface were measured by an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Expression of L1 was up-regulated in neuroblastoma N2A cells after 1 day of maintenance in 40 and 60 mM K+, but not in phaeochromocytoma PC12 cells. Expression levels of N-CAM and antigens recognized by the monoclonal antibody A2B5 or by polyclonal antibodies to crude membrane fractions of liver were not significantly altered by elevated K+ concentrations in these two cell lines. In monolayer cultures of early postnatal mouse cerebellum, an increase of 60% in expression of L1, but not N-CAM or A2B5, was seen at 20 and 40 mM K+. This increase in L1 expression was specifically inhibitable by the Ca2+ channel blocker nicardipine. NMDA at a concentration of 100 μM increased levels of L1, but not of N-CAM. This increase was inhibitable by the NMDA antagonists 2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate and MK-801, but not significantly by the kainate/quisqualate antagonist 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2, 3-dione. The increase in L1 expression at higher K+ concentrations was not inhibitable by the NMDA antagonists, indicating that the K+-mediated increase in L1 expression is not due to release of glutamate by cerebellar neurons. These observations indicate that compounds influencing neuronal membrane properties, and thus neuronal excitability, are capable of regulating the expression of L1. In a more general context, these findings suggest that previously observed changes in synaptic connectivity in situ, resulting from activity-dependent fine tuning of neuronal morphology, may be mediated by alterations in the expression of recognition molecules.