We have probed the molecular basis of functional effects of ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) and nerve growth factor (NGF) on aspects of the neuronal differentiation of LA-N-2 neuroblastoma cells. The influence of CNTF on the cholinergic phenotype can be accounted for by transcriptional/translational effects without implicating posttranslational mechanisms. Although both NGF receptors are expressed constitutively by LA-N-2 cells, CNTF has a marked stimulatory effect on trkA mRNA and protein. The NGF receptors are functional in serum-free conditions where they mitigate CNTF effects on cell adhesion but do not support process extension. Following priming by CNTF, NGF and CNTF have synergistic influences on process formation but not on choline acetyltransferase-specific activity.