Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) promotes glycogenolysis in primary cultures of mouse cerebral cortical astrocytes with an EC50 of 1.5 microM. A pharmacological analysis indicates an involvement of purinergic P2Y receptors in this action of ATP. Application of either arachidonic acid (AA), or certain unsaturated fatty acids, also results in glycogen breakdown. The EC50 of AA is approximately 50 microM. Thus ATP and AA can be added to the list of neuroactive agents that control glycogen levels in astrocytes, which includes noradrenaline, vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), adenosine and histamine.