Synthesis of complex glycosphingolipids was analyzed in cultures of PC 12 cells treated with nerve growth factor (NGF) and forskolin, either sequentially or simultaneously. For the sequential treatment, forskolin was added following 15 days of NGF treatment and cultures were continued for 3 additional days. For simultaneous treatment, cells maintained in medium with no additives received both agents and were then incubated for 3 additional days. Sequential NGF/forskolin treatment induced hypertrophy in PC12 cells and produced cells which had more neuron-like characteristics than cells treated with NGF alone. Simultaneous treatment initially accelerated the outgrowth of neurites and then reduced neurite elongation. Sequential treatment of PC12 cells resulted in a greater than 50% increase in the incorporation of fucose into neutral glycolipids and gangliosides compared to treatment with NGF alone. Galactose incorporation was unchanged, indicating that there was no net increase in glycolipid synthesis. The lack of an increase in total glycolipid accumulation was confirmed using monoclonal antibodies reacting with specific fucosylated and nonfucosylated PC12 cell glycolipids. However, TLC immunostaining analysis revealed that sequential NGF/forskolin treatment selectively altered the expression of some neutral glycolipid species. In contrast to the effects of the sequential treatment, simultaneous NGF and forskolin treatment was accompanied by a decrease in the incorporation of fucose and galactose into neutral glycolipids and gangliosides. These findings suggest that the timing of exposure to neuronotrophic factors and agents which activate adenylate cyclase might in part account for developmental regulated patterns of glycoconjugate expression and provide further evidence that fucosylation of glycolipids may be associated with maturation of sympathetic neurons.