Neuronal cdk5 can phosphorylate certain lys-ser-pro (KSP) motifs of neurofilaments and tau protein in the nervous system. We have immunoprecipitated the cdk5 from rat brain using a polyclonal antibody raised against the C-terminus of cdk5. The immunoprecipitate has phosphorylated a KSPXK peptide analog of NF-H, as well as histone H1 and a bacterially expressed rat NF-H protein. The kinase activity was inhibited by staurosporine, isopentanyladenine and olomoucine in a dose dependent manner. Kinetic studies indicated Ki values of 39 nM, 38 microM and 8 microM, respectively for staurosporine, isopentanyladenine and olomoucine. The inhibition by staurosporine was non-competitive with respect to phosphoryl acceptor acceptor substrates. Western blot analysis of the immunoprecipitate showed both cdk5 and p67 (Munc-18), a putative regulator molecule of the kinase. Addition of p67 fusion protein enhanced the kinase activity of the immunoprecipitate by 60% above the basal activity. P67 elevated Ki values for both staurosporine and olomoucine. The degree of inhibition at high concentrations of these inhibitors was unaltered by exogenous p67 indicating a lack of competitive interactions with p67. The high affinity of staurosporine for cdk5 suggests that cdk5 may be one of the targets for the neurotropic effect of staurosporine.