To study regulation in vivo of the promoter for the neural cell adhesion molecule, N-CAM, we have used homologous recombination to insert the bacterial lacZ gene between the transcription and translation initiation sites of the N-CAM gene. This insertion disrupts the gene and places the expression of beta-galactosidase under the control of the N-CAM promoter. Animals homozygous for the disrupted allele did not express N-CAM mRNA or protein, but the pattern of beta-galactosidase expression in heterozygous and homozygous embryos was similar to that of N-CAM mRNA in wild-type animals. The homozygotes exhibited many of the morphological abnormalities observed in previously reported N-CAM knockout mice, with the exception that hippocampal long-term potentiation in the Schaffer collaterals was identical in homozygous, heterozygous, and wild-type animals. Heterozygous mice were used to examine the regulation of the N-CAM promoter in response to enhanced synaptic transmission. Treatment of the mice with an ampakine, an allosteric modulator of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) receptors that enhances normal glutamate-mediated synaptic transmission, increased the expression of beta-galactosidase in vivo as well as in tissue slices in vitro. Similar treatments also increased the expression of N-CAM mRNA in the heterozygotes. The effects of ampakine in slices were strongly reduced in the presence of 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione (CNQX), an AMPA receptor antagonist. Taken together, these results indicate that facilitation of AMPA receptor-mediated transmission leads to activation of the N-CAM promoter and provide support for the hypothesis that N-CAM synthesis is regulated in part by synaptic activity.