Effects of the glutamate receptor agonists, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) and alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA), on the activator protein-1 (AP-1) DNA binding activity were studied in primary cultures of rat cerebellar granule cells. Application of NMDA as well as of AMPA produced a concentration-dependent enhancement of AP-1 binding. Further examination revealed that only a brief exposure (10 min) to NMDA or AMPA was required for the initiation of a significant, four- to sixfold enhancement of AP-1 DNA binding activity. Blockade of the desensitization of AMPA receptors by cyclothiazide further reduced the exposure time needed to activate the AP-1 complex. The time needed to achieve a maximal increase of AP-1 binding activity varied depending on the glutamate receptor agonist used. NMDA gave maximal AP-1 stimulation after 60 min exposure, whereas stimulation with AMPA alone reached a maximum after 240 min exposure. When AMPA was applied together with cyclothiazide the maximal enhancement of AP-1 binding was reached much faster, within 120 min. Supershift analysis with specific antibodies against the members of Fos and Jun protein families (c-Fos, Fos B, c-Jun, Jun B, Jun D) revealed that the NMDA-induced AP-1 complex was composed predominantly of Jun D and c-Fos. The composition of the AP-1 complex activated by AMPA alone was similar to that produced by NMDA, but with an additional contribution of Fos B. In contrast, application of AMPA plus cyclothiazide induced an AP-1 transcription with contribution of Jun D, c-Fos, Fos B, c-Jun and Jun B proteins. These findings indicate that glutamate is able to enhance AP-1 DNA binding activity in cerebellar granule cells through both NMDA and AMPA glutamate receptors.