Previous studies have shown that certain glycosphingolipids may function as modulators of protein kinase C (PKC) activity. To study the structure-activity relationship, we examined the effects of 17 gangliosides, 10 neutral glycolipids,as well as sulfatide, psychosine and ceramide on PKC activity in PC12D cells. Using an in vitro assay system, we found that all but one (GQ1b) ganglioside inhibited PKC activity at concentrations between 25 and 100 µM, and the potency was proportional to the number of sialic acid residues. However,at lower concentrations several gangliosides, including GM1 and LM1 behaved as mild activators of PKC activity. GQ lb had no effect within the range 0.1-10 µM, but acted as a mild activator of PKC activity at 25 µM. On the other hand, fucosyl-GMl and GM1 containing blood group B determinant,which are abundant in PC 12 cells, were potent inhibitors of PKC activity. Among the neutral glycosphingolipids tested, LacCer, Gb3, GalGb3, and GA1, all of which have a terminal galactose residue, were found to be ineffective or acted as mild activators of PKC activity. In contrast, GA2, Gb4 and Gb5 which have a terminal N-acetylgalactosamine residue, were potent inhibitors of the PKC activity. Thus, the terminal sugar residue may play a pivotal role in determining the effect of glycosphingolipids in modulating PKC activity. In addition, we also found that GalCer containing normal fatty acids acted as potent activators of PKC activity. Ceramide and GlcCer appeared to be ineffective in modulating PKC activity, whereas psychosine and sulfatides appeared to be inhibitory. We conclude that the carbohydrate head groups and the hydrophobic groups of gangliosides and neutral glycolipids may modulate the PKC system in unique manners, which may in turn affect various biological processes in the cell.