Depolarizing concentrations of potassium promote the survival of many neuronal cell types including cerebellar granule cells. To begin to understand the intracellular mediators of neuronal survival, we have tested whether the survival-promoting effect of potassium depolarization on cerebellar granule cells is dependent on either mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase or phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI-3-K) activity. In 7-day cerebellar granule cell cultures, potassium depolarization activated both MAP kinase and PI-3-K. Preventing the activation of MAP kinase with the MEK1 inhibitor PD98059 did not affect potassium saving. In contrast, the survival- promoting effect of 25 mM potassium was negated by the addition of 30 μM LY 294002 or 1 μM wortmannin, two distinct inhibitors of PI-3-K. The cell death induced by PI-3-K inhibition was indistinguishable from the cell death caused by potassium deprivation; LY 294002-induced death included nuclear condensation, was blocked by cycloheximide, and had the same time course as potassium deprivation-induced cell death. Cerebellar granule cells can also be maintained in serum-free medium containing either 100 ng/ml insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) or 800 μM cAMP. PI-3-K inhibition completely blocked the survival-promoting activity of IGF-I, but had no effect on cAMP-mediated survival. These data indicate that the survival-promoting effects of depolarization and IGF-I, but not cAMP, require PI-3-K activity.