Selective agonists for metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR) subtypes were tested on mature, cultured rat cerebellar Purkinje neurons (> or = 21 days in vitro) to identify functionally relevant mGluRs expressed by these neurons and to investigate the transduction pathways associated with mGluR-mediated changes in membrane excitability. Current-clamp recordings (nystatin/perforated-patch method) were used to measure the membrane response of Purkinje neurons to brief microperfusion pulses (1.5 s) of the group I (mGluR1/mGluR5) agonists (1S,3R)-1-aminocyclopentane-1,3-dicarboxylic acid (300 microM), quisqualate (5 microM), and (R,S)-3,5-dihydroxyphenylglycine (50-500 microM). All group I mGluR agonists elicited biphasic membrane responses and burst activity in the Purkinje neurons. In addition, the group I mGluR agonists produced alterations in the active membrane properties of the Purkinje neurons and depressed the OFF response after hyperpolarizing current injection. In parallel microscopic Ca2+ imaging experiments, application of the group I mGluR agonists to fura-2-loaded cells elicited increases in intracellular Ca2+ in both the somatic and dendritic regions. The group II (mGluR2/mGluR3) agonist (2S,3S,4S)-alpha-(carboxycyclopropyl)-glycine (10 microM) and the group III (mGluR4/mGluR6/mGluR7/mGluR8) agonists L(+)-2-amino-4-phosphonobutyric acid (1 mM) and O-phospho-L-serine (200 microM) had no effect on the membrane potential or intracellular Ca2+ levels of the Purkinje neurons. The cultured Purkinje neurons, but not granule neurons or interneurons, showed immunostaining for mGluR1alpha in both the somatic and dendritic regions. All effects of the group I mGluR agonists were blocked by (+)-alpha-methyl-4-carboxyphenylglycine (1 mM), an mGluR antagonist. Furthermore, the phospholipase C inhibitor 1-[6-((17beta-3-methoxyestra-1,3,5(10)-trien-17-yl)amino)hexyl]-1H -pyrrole-2,5-dione (2 microM) blocked the group I mGluR agonist-mediated electrophysiological response and greatly attenuated the Ca2+ signal elicited by group I mGluR agonists, particularly in the dendrites. The inactive analogue 1-[6-((17beta-3-methoxyestra-1,3,5(10)-trien-17-yl)amino)hexyl]-2, 5-pyrrolidine-dione (2 microM) was relatively ineffective against the electrophysiological response and Ca2+ signal. These results indicate that functional group I mGluRs (but not group II or III mGluRs) can be activated on mature Purkinje neurons in culture and result in changes in neuronal excitability and intracellular Ca2+ mediated through phospholipase C. These data obtained from a defined neuronal type, the Purkinje neuron, confirm biochemical and molecular studies on the transduction mechanisms of group I mGluRs and show that this transduction pathway is linked to neuronal excitability and intracellular Ca2+ release in the Purkinje neurons.