Cultured principal neurons of the superior cervical ganglion (SCG), which coexpress high levels of catecholamines and neuropeptide Y (NPY), were used as a model to simultaneously examine whether sympathetic neuronal peptide and transmitter content or secretion are differentially regulated. Accumulation of NPY immunoreactivity and the dopamine metabolites DOPAC and HVA in SCG neuronal conditioned culture medium was used as an index of NPY and catecholamine secretion, respectively. Release of NPY and catecholamines was linear with time; SCG neurons exhibited a basal NPY secretory rate of approximately 0.9–3 fmol NPY immunoreactivity/10(4) cells/hr, and basal DOPAC plus HVA accumulation was about 10–20 pmol total metabolites/10(4) cells/hr. While sympathetic neuronal NPY and total catecholamine cell content increased more than 6–10-fold by 14 d of culture, secretion remained constant. Depolarization stimulated the rate of NPY secretion 18-fold, whereas medium catecholamine metabolite levels increased 3-fold. Activation of intracellular signaling pathways was shown to be an important point of regulation of sympathetic neuron peptide and transmitter content and secretion. Differential regulation of SCG neuron NPY and catecholamine expression was second messenger system specific. Activation of the protein kinase A pathway with the cAMP analog dibutyryl cAMP, or the adenylyl cyclase activator forskolin, produced a concentration-dependent, sustained stimulation of NPY secretion; maximal stimulation resulted in decreased cellular NPY content. Parallel stimulated neuronal catecholamine release was observed, but in contrast to NPY, total cellular catecholamine content was also increased. Regulation of the protein kinase C pathway with phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) stimulated SCG neuronal NPY secretion to a lesser degree than activation of protein kinase A, but did not alter cellular NPY levels. PMA minimally stimulated catecholamine release and content. NPY secretion induced by the calcium ionophore A23187 was paralleled by a concomitant decrease in cellular NPY. A23187 decreased catecholamine release, but did not change cellular total catecholamine levels. The magnitude of the secretory responses of sympathetic neurons to these regulators was far greater than changes in NPY or catecholamine content, biosynthesis or mRNA levels, suggesting that release is a primary site of regulation. The independent regulation of sympathetic neuronal NPY and catecholamine content and release is consistent with the fundamental differences in the biosynthetic pathways, vesicular compartmentalization, uptake and metabolism of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters.