PC12 cells are a pheochromocytoma cell line that can be made to differentiate into sympatheticlike neurons by nerve growth factor (NGF). An essential component of the NGF-induced differentiation is the development of action potentials and sodium channels. Using whole-cell clamp we have confirmed that NGF produces a 5- to 6-fold increase in sodium channel density. The sodium channels induced by NGF are not different from those in cells not treated with NGF and are similar to those in other cell types. Basic fibroblast growth factor (FGF), another growth factor that causes PC12 cells to differentiate into sympathetic-like neurons, also produces a 5- to 6-fold increase in sodium current density with channels indistinguishable from those in PC12 cells treated and not treated with NGF. Basic FGF produces the same or somewhat larger increase in sodium channel density but much less neurite outgrowth. In contrast, epidermal growth factor does not produce neurite outgrowth but induces a small, reproducible increase in sodium channel density. Cyclic AMP produces spike-like processes but not neurites and results in a decrease in sodium current and sodium current density. Dexamethasone, a synthetic glucocorticoid, inhibits the increase in sodium current and sodium current density but does not antagonize the neurite outgrowth induced by NGF. Thus, although the increase in sodium channel expression induced by NGF and basic FGF parallels the changes in morphology that lead to neurite outgrowth, it clearly does not depend on them. The results show that different aspects of neuronal differentiation might be independently regulated by the microenvironment.