POU/homeobox genes encode transcription regulatory proteins that are important in defining cellular phenotypes. Expression of these genes may be critical for to the regulation of CNS cellular differentiation. We have identified a cDNA corresponding to a new member of the POU/homeobox gene family. Expression of RNA encoded by this new gene occurs predominantly in the CNS. Thus, this new gene was designated Cns- 1. Cns-1 transcripts are expressed in differentiating cells cultured from the early postnatal cerebellum. Treatment of these cultured cells with NMDA results in an increase in the level of Cns-1 RNA. This increase is blocked by simultaneous treatment with the specific NMDA receptor antagonist amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid. Continued activation of the NMDA receptor allows maintenance of this new steady state level of Cns-1 mRNA for at least 5 d in these cultured cells. A transcription runoff assay suggests that this increase in the level of RNA is due, at least in part, to an increase in transcription from the Cns-1 gene. The NMDA-induced increase in Cns-1 mRNA was reduced by pretreatment with calcium chelators EGTA or 1,2-bis(2-aminophenoxy)ethane-N,N,N′,N′- tetraacetic acid (BAPTA) tetrakis(acetoxymethyl). These studies suggest that specific activation of the NMDA receptor in cultures of differentiating cerebellar cells increases Cns-1 gene expression and that calcium entry through the NMDA channel may be required for this response. This change in Cns-1 expression may modify phenotypic characteristics of these cultured cells.