We have applied in situ hybridization histochemistry, Northern analysis, and immunocytochemistry to study the regulation of the immediate-early gene (IEG) c-fos, c-jun, and junB mRNAs and the respective proteins in the rat adrenal medulla. Electrophoresis mobility shift assay was used to examine changes in AP-1 DNA binding activity. In nontreated rats the mRNA and protein levels for these three IEGs were low. Reflex stimulation of adrenal medulla elicited by a single capsaicin injection induced a rapid and marked elevation in the mRNA levels for these IEGs. Stimulation with nicotine also caused a drastic increase in the mRNA levels, whereas muscarine only induced moderate elevations. c-fos and c-jun were induced strongly in adrenaline cells and only weakly in noradrenaline cells. junB was upregulated mainly in adrenaline cells. The AP-1 DNA binding activity was low in control adrenals, whereas a marked increase was observed after nicotine treatment. Treatment of the animals with a nicotinic (chlorisondamine) or a muscarinic (atropine) receptor antagonist did not change the expression of IEGs studied. The combination of the two drugs, however elevated the mRNA levels for all three IEGs, especially for junB. Pretreatment of the rats with chlorisondamine alone or in combination with atropine diminished the capsaicin-induced increase in c-fos, whereas atropine alone was less efficient. Increase in c-jun mRNA was not affected by these drugs. The capsaicin-induced elevation of junB mRNA levels was not influenced by chlorisondamine or atropine alone, whereas both combined potentiated the effect of capsaicin. The present results demonstrate that neurotransmitters released from splanchnic nerve terminals induce expression of c-fos, c-jun, and junB in adrenal chromaffin cells which results in increased AP-1 DNA binding activity. Although stimulation of both nicotinic and muscarinic cholinergic receptors may mediate the induction of these IEGs, it is possible that also another neurotransmitter(s), in addition to ACh, released from splanchnic nerve terminals is involved in the regulation of their expression, especially of c-jun and junB.