The neuropathology of Parkinson's disease is characterized by the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra. We have recently shown that the activation of protein kinase A improves the survival of dopaminergic neurons in culture and, furthermore, protects them from the dopaminergic neurotoxin, 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium ion (MPP+) in vitro. We have now analysed the potential of phosphodiesterase inhibitors to increase cAMP levels in dopaminergic neurons, to improve their survival in culture and to protect them from the toxicity of 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) in vivo. Increasing intracellular cAMP with phosphodiesterase type IV-specific inhibitors enhanced the survival of dopaminergic neurons in culture. Inhibitors of other phosphodiesterase types were not active. In vivo, phosphodiesterase type IV inhibitors reduced the MPTP-induced dopamine depletion in the striatum of C57BL/6 mice. Furthermore, the loss of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunopositive neurons in the substantia nigra of these animals was diminished. After Nissl staining, a similar reduction of the MPTP-induced loss of neurons was observed in the substantia nigra. The protective effect of protein kinase A activation did not appear to be due to the blocking of MPP+ uptake into dopaminergic neurons. This was not decreased after treatment with forskolin or 8-(4-chlorophenylthio)-cAMP. Thus, protein kinase A regulates the survival and differentiation of dopaminergic substantia nigra neurons in vivo, implicating a therapeutic potential for substances which regulate cAMP turnover in these neurons.