J. Neurochem. (2011) 118, 365–378.
Pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating peptide (PACAP) is a neuroprotective peptide which exerts its effects mainly through the cAMP-protein kinase A (PKA) pathway. Here, we show that in cortical neurons, PACAP-induced PKA signaling exerts a major part of its neuroprotective effects indirectly, by triggering action potential (AP) firing. Treatment of cortical neurons with PACAP induces a rapid and sustained PKA-dependent increase in AP firing and associated intracellular Ca2+ transients, which are essential for the anti-apoptotic actions of PACAP. Transient exposure to PACAP induces long-lasting neuroprotection in the face of apoptotic insults which is reliant on AP firing and the activation of cAMP response element (CRE) binding protein (CREB)-mediated gene expression. Although direct, activity-independent PKA signaling is sufficient to trigger phosphorylation on CREB’s activating serine-133 site, this is insufficient for activation of CREB-mediated gene expression. Full activation is dependent on CREB-regulated transcription co-activator 1 (CRTC1), whose PACAP-induced nuclear import is dependent on firing activity-dependent calcineurin signaling. Over-expression of CRTC1 is sufficient to rescue PACAP-induced CRE-mediated gene expression in the face of activity-blockade, while dominant negative CRTC1 interferes with PACAP-induced, CREB-mediated neuroprotection. Thus, the enhancement of AP firing may play a significant role in the neuroprotective actions of PACAP and other adenylate cyclase-coupled ligands.