Although the amygdala is known to be crucial for fear conditioning, little is known about the molecular and cellular mechanisms in the amygdala that are important for fear conditioning. One possible mechanism may be the activation of immediate-early genes, which function as regulatory factors of transcriptional processes. To investigate whether one of the major immediate-early gene families is involved in the learning and memory of fear, we examined the effects of fear conditioning on the expression of the four members of the early growth response (EGR) gene family, EGR-1, EGR-2, EGR-3, and EGR-4. Image analysis of in situ hybridization of messenger RNA of the four family members was performed in the amygdala, hippocampus, and neocortex 15, 30 and 60min following one-trial contextual fear conditioning. Rats were either handled, placed within the testing context without receiving the footshock, and received a footshock immediately upon placement within the context, or received a footshock after a 3-min delay (delayed-shock). Of the four groups, only the delayed-shock group exhibited a fear response (freezing). EGR-1 messenger RNA expression in the dorsolateral part of the lateral amygdaloid nucleus was significantly greater in the delayed-shock group compared with the other groups 15 and 30min following the conditioning. The increased expression of EGR-1 was specifically localized to the lateral nucleus of the amygdala; expression in the hippocampus and cortex was not increased by fear conditioning. In contrast, the expression of EGR-2, EGR-3, and EGR-4 messenger RNA was not increased in the amygdala, hippocampus or cortex following fear conditioning. In addition, following a retention test conducted 24h after fear conditioning, no increases were found in the expression of EGR-1 messenger RNA expression in the amygdala, hippocampus or cortex. The results demonstrate that of the four genes of the EGR family of transcription-regulatory factors, only EGR-1 messenger RNA in the dorsolateral portion of the lateral nucleus of the amygdala was specifically increased with contextual fear conditioning. It is suggested that EGR-1 plays a functional role during learning, but not retrieval, of contextual fear within the lateral nucleus of the amygdala.