Gangliosides located in the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane are important modulators of cellular functions. Our previous work has shown that in cultured human SK-N-MC neuroblastoma cells a sialidase residing in the same membrane selectively desialylates gangliosides with terminal sialic acid residues, causing a shift from higher species to GM1 and a conversion of GM3 to lactosylceramide. Inhibition of this sialidase by 2-deoxy-2,3-dehydro-N-acetylneuraminic acid (NeuAc2en) resulted in increased cell proliferation and a loss of differentiation markers. In this study, we examined the occurrence and function of this ganglioside sialidase in other neuronal cells. Subcellular fractionation showed the sialidase to be located in the plasma membrane of all cell lines studied. The presence of the inhibitor NeuAc2en led to a profound decrease in the amount of the differentiation marker 200 kDa/70 kDa neurofilaments and an increase in cell proliferation in the cholinergic SK-N-MC and mixed cholinergic/adrenergic SK-N-FI and SK-N-DZ neuroblastoma lines, but had little or no effect in the human adrenergic SK-N-SH and SK-N-AS and the adrenergic/cholinergic PC12 cells from rat. The influence of the inhibitor on cell behaviour was paralleled by a diminished number of cholera toxin B-binding GM1 sites. The findings demonstrate that the plasma membrane ganglioside sialidase is an important element of proliferation and differentiation control in some, but not all, neuroblastoma cells and suggest that there might be a relationship between plasma membrane sialidase activity and cholinergic differentiation.