We have examined the role of the p75 neurotrophin receptor in survival-promoting effects of nerve growth factor (NGF) and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) on cultured Purkinje cells. Previously, we showed that NGF promotes Purkinje cell survival in conjunction with (1S,3R)-1-aminocyclopentane-1,3-dicarboxylic acid (ACPD), an agonist of metabotropic excitatory amino acid receptors, whereas NT-3 by itself increases cell number. We now present evidence that p75 plays different roles in Purkinje cell responses to the two neurotrophins. A metabotropic receptor of the mGluR1 subtype may interact with p75 function, so as to regulate Purkinje cell responsiveness to neurotrophins. When cerebellar cultures were grown for 6 days in the presence of ACPD and a mutant form of NGF that does not bind to p75, no increase in Purkinje cell number was observed. Moreover, the survival-promoting effect of wild-type NGF and ACPD could be inhibited by a neutralizing antiserum to p75 or by a pyrazoloquinazolinone inhibitor of neurotrophin binding to p75. In contrast, the response to NT-3 was potentiated by anti-p75 treatment and by the quinazolinone. These data indicate the mediation of p75 in the trophic response to NGF-ACPD and a negative modulatory role of p75 in the action of NT-3. To probe the role of ACPD in the p75-dependent response to NGF, metabotropic receptor subtype-specific ligands were tested. The pattern of agonist specificity implicated the mGluR1 subtype, a receptor that is expressed at high levels by Purkinje cells and linked to activation of protein kinase C (PKC). Down-regulation or blockade of PKC abolished the response to NGF-ACPD. Consistent with the opposite roles of p75 in effects of the two neurotrophins, blockade of mGluR1 or PKC potentiated the survival response elicited by NT-3. In sum, our data suggest that afferent excitatory transmitters activate specific metabotropic receptors to elicit a p75-mediated action of NGF. NT-3 acts on Purkinje cells by a different mechanism that is not absolutely p75-dependent and that is reduced by neurotrophin access to p75 and metabotropic receptor activity.