Development of the nervous system is a complex process, involving coordinated regulation of diverse cellular processes including proliferation, differentiation and synaptogenesis. Disturbances to brain development such as pre and perinatal hypoxia have been linked to behavioural and late onset of neurological disorders. This study examines the effect of hypoxia on neurite outgrowth in PC12 cells. Hypoxia not only caused a rapid induction of neurite outgrowth, but also synergistically enhanced nerve growth factor (NGF)induced neurite outgrowth up to 24 h. Transactivation of TrkA receptors was ruled out since the TrkA inhibitor K252a did not block hypoxia-induced neurite outgrowth. Adenosine deaminase prevented hypoxia-induced neurite outgrowth indicating that the effect is mediated by adenosine. Use of the specific adenosine A2A receptor agonist CGS21680 and antagonist 8-3(chlorostyryl)caffeine demonstrated that activation of this receptor is critical for hypoxia-induced neurite outgrowth. Hypoxia-induced neurite outgrowth was blocked by the adenylate cyclase inhibitor, MDL-12,330A, indicating a role for activation of this enzyme in the pathway. Hypoxia was further shown to cause a decrease in growth-associated protein (GAP)-43 levels and a lack of induction of Pill tubulin, in contrast to NGF treatment which resulted in increased cellular levels of both of these proteins. These findings suggest that hypoxia induces neurite outgrowth in PC12 cells via a pathway distinct from that activated by NGF. Thus, exposure to hypoxia at critical stages of development may contribute to aberrant neurite outgrowth and could be a factor in the pathogenesis of certain delayed developmental neurological disorders. (C) 2005 Published by Elsevier Ltd on behalf of IBRO.