Tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), a serine protease that converts inactive plasminogen to active plasmin, is produced in the rat and mouse hippocampus and participates in neuronal plasticity. To help define the role of tPA in the nervous system, we have analyzed the regulation of its expression in the neuronal cell line PC12. In control cultures, tPA activity is exclusively cell-associated, and no activity is measurable in the culture medium. When the cells are treated with depolarizing agents, such as KCI, tPA activity becomes detectable in the medium. The increased secreted tPA activity is not accompanied by an increase in tPA mRNA levels, and it is not blocked by protein synthesis inhibitors. In contrast, tPA release is abolished by Ca2+ channel blockers, suggesting that chemically induced membrane depolarization stimulates the secretion of preformed enzyme. Moreover, KCI has a similar effect in vivo when administered to the murine brain via an osmotic pump: tPA activity increases along the CA2-CA3 regions and dentate gyrus of the hippocampal formation. These results demonstrate a neuronal activity-dependent secretory mechanism that can rapidly increase the amount of tPA in neuronal tissue.