In the presence of neurotrophin-3 (NT-3), high-affinity norepinephrine (NE) uptake by quail neural crest cells was significantly increased as judged by in vitro colony assay of adrenergic differentiation. In the presence of the related neurotrophins nerve growth factor (NGF) or brain-derived neurotrophic (BDNF) factor, or of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), there were no significant changes. When NE was added to the culture medium in addition to NT-3, more colonies contained dopamine-beta-hydroxylase (DBH)-immunoreactive cells, an enzyme that is characteristic for adrenergic cells. The NE-mediated increase in the portion of colonies that contained DBH-immunoreactive cells was prevented by the tricyclic antidepressant desipramine (DMI) and by cocaine, two types of drug that block cellular transport of NE. To further examine whether NE acts via uptake, colony assays were performed in the presence and absence of adrenergic antagonists and agonists. These would be expected to mimic the DMI and NE effects, respectively, if the mechanism of action involved activation of adrenergic autoreceptors. Neither class of drug showed a detectable effect within a wide range of concentrations. Immunocytochemistry using antibodies against beta 1 and beta 2 adrenergic receptors further supported the notion that DMI action and beta-receptor expression are not causally related. Ratio imaging was subsequently used in an attempt to elucidate the mechanism of NE action. Within a few minutes of addition of NE to the culture medium, there was an increase in intracellular free calcium in a subset of neural crest cells. Taken together, our data indicate that NT-3 is involved in the appearance of the NE transporter (NET) during embryonic development; internalized NE directly or indirectly increases adrenergic differentiation as measured by immunoreactivity of the adrenergic biosynthetic enzyme DBH; and norepinephrine uptake inhibitors have treatogenic potential.