Metrazole, which reflexively activates the splanchnic nerve to the adrenal medulla, was used to investigate the physiological role of Egr-1 in the neural regulation of phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase (PNMT) gene transcription in the rat adrenal gland. A single dose of this drug (70 mg/kg s.c.) rapidly and transiently induced Egr-1 mRNA, with a maximum 22.0-fold increase at 30 min after treatment, followed by a 3.7-fold increase in PNMT mRNA at 8 hr. In contrast, cocaine (15 mg/kg i.p.), which activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, increased Egr-1 mRNA only 3-fold at 30 min, although it elevated PNMT mRNA comparably. Consistent with their mechanisms of activation, cocaine increased corticosterone levels 7.7-fold at 30 min, whereas metrazole modestly elevated this endogenous corticosteroid 2.5-fold. The cholinergic agonists nicotine (2 mg/kg l.p.) and muscarine (0.1 mg/kg i.p.) also elevated Egr-1 mRNA, with a peak 12- to 15-fold increase being apparent at 30 min after treatment, followed by a 1.7-to 2.0-fold rise in PNMT mRNA at 8 hr. In vitro, metrazole did not increase Egr-1 mRNA above levels observed with carbachol alone (100 microM) in PC-12-derived RS1 cells pretreated with this cholinergic agonist. Finally, splanchnic denervation partially blocked the metrazole-induced rise in Egr-1 mRNA (50% control), while having no effect on cocaine-induced changes in Egr-1 mRNA. These results provide further support for the involvement of Egr-1 in the neural regulation of PNMT gene expression in the rat adrenal gland.