CNS function depends on a capacity for plasticity during development, following injury, and in response to changing environmental conditions. Functional alterations in signal transduction pathways and in neurotransmitter receptor expression are possible mechanisms for the expression of such plasticity. In the present report, we demonstrate that exposure of astrocytes to specific growth factors alters both the functional activity and the protein levels of a specific glutamate receptor. Exposure of astrocytes to basic fibroblast growth factor, epidermal growth factor, or transforming growth factor-alpha produced marked increases in the ability of metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR) agonists to stimulate phosphoinositide hydrolysis. Using Western immunoblotting, we demonstrate that an increase in the levels of one of the phosphoinositide-coupled mGluR subtypes, mGluR5, accompanies the increased ability of mGluR agonists to stimulate phosphoinositide hydrolysis. In contrast, another phosphoinositide- coupled subtype of this receptor family, mGluR1 alpha, was not present at detectable levels in these cultures. The enhanced stimulation of phosphoinositide hydrolysis showed little sensitivity to pertussis toxin, and appeared to be selective to mGluR agonists, as there was not a similar increase in the ability of norepinephrine or carbachol to stimulate phosphoinositide hydrolysis. These findings demonstrate that expression of mGluRs in astrocytes is plastic, and indicate a novel pathway through which specific growth factors may selectively modulate neurotransmitter action.