Nerve growth factor (NGF) is required for the maturation and survival of sympathetic neurons, but the mechanisms controlling expression of the NGF receptor in developing neuroblasts have not been defined. MAH cells, an immortalized sympathoadrenal progenitor cell line, did not respond to NGF and expressed neither low-affinity NGF receptor (p75) nor p140trk messenger RNAs. Depolarizing concentrations of potassium chloride, but none of a variety of growth factors, induced expression of p140trk but not p75 messenger RNA. A functional response to NGF was acquired by MAH cells under these conditions, suggesting that expression of p75 is not essential for this response. Depolarization also permitted a relatively high proportion of MAH cells to develop and survive as neurons in fibroblast growth factor and NGF. These data establish a relation between electrical activity and neurotrophic factor responsiveness in developing neurons, which may operate in the functioning of the mature nervous system as well.