Cyclic AMP (cAMP) stimulates the expression of numerous genes through the protein kinase A (PK-A)-mediated phosphorylation of the nuclear factor CREB at Ser-133 (G. A. Gonzalez and M. R. Montminy, Cell 59:675-680, 1989). Like other signal transduction pathways, cAMP induces gene expression with burst-attenuation kinetics; cAMP-dependent transcription and CREB phosphorylation peak within 30 min and decline steadily over the next 4 to 6 h via the protein phosphatase 1-mediated dephosphorylation of CREB (M. Hagiwara, A. Alberts, P. Brindle, J. Meinkoth, J. Feramisco, T. Deng, M. Karin, S. Shenolikar, and M. Montminy, Cell 70:105-113, 1992). Here we characterize a third phase in cAMP-responsive transcription--a refractory period during which hormone-treated cells become transcriptionally unresponsive to subsequent stimulation by cAMP. This refractory period begins 6 to 8 h after stimulation and lasts 3 to 5 days after the removal of hormone. In contrast to the earlier attenuation phase, transcription of cAMP-responsive genes during the refractory period is not restored by inhibitors of protein phosphatase 1 activity. Rather, the establishment and maintenance of this phase rely on a marked reduction in PK-A catalytic subunit expression at the translational level. As overexpression of C-subunit protein can reactive transcription of cAMP-responsive genes during the refractory period, our results suggest that hormone-responsive cells may stimulate, attenuate, and then silence signal-dependent genes through distinct regulatory mechanisms.