The activity and/or expression of the mitogen-activated protein kinases c-Jun N-terminal kinase 1, p38 and extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1/2, as well as their substrates, the transcription factors c-Jun and activating transcription factor-2, were examined following systemic application of kainate in the cortex and hippocampus of the adult rat brain. The protein expression levels of all three mitogen-activated protein kinases remained constant during the observation period. Unexpectedly, c-Jun N-terminal kinase 1 was the only mitogen-activated protein kinase activated in this model of excitotoxicity, its activity raised from between 1 and 3 h moderate basal to maximal levels between 6 and 12 h. In contradistinction, activity of extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1/2 fell from their substantial basal levels and did not recover; activity of p38 was characterized by a high basal level that almost entirely disappeared and did not return to basal levels even 10 days after kainate application. c-Jun protein was rapidly expressed, with a maximum after 3 h and a slow decline after 12 h. Supershift assays revealed that, during the early induction phase of the c-jun gene, the proximal activator protein-1 (jun1) site of the c-jun promoter was mainly occupied by the constitutively expressed activating transcription factor-2, whereas the late induction correlated with the predominant binding of c-Jun and, to a lesser extent, activating transcription factor-2 to the distal activator protein-1 (jun2) site. The time-course of the N-terminal phosphorylation of c-Jun as determined by immunocytochemistry paralleled the activity of c-Jun N-terminal kinase 1 and showed a compartment-specific regulation between 3 and 12 h. A second set of supershift experiments demonstrated that c-Jun, but not activating transcription factor 2, bound to activator protein-1 sites in the promoter of substance P and collagenase genes, but not of the cyclo-oxygenase-2 gene. Our results demonstrate that activation of c-Jun N-terminal kinase 1, phosphorylation of c-Jun and selective occupation of the c-jun promoter by activating transcription factor-2 or c-Jun are part of the neuronal response following excitotoxicity that is considered as the mechanism for neuronal apoptosis in vivo. Some of these findings differ substantially from in vitro experiments and underline the necessity to analyse the neuronal stress pathways in the adult brain.