Oxidative stress is implicated in the pathogenesis of neuronal degenerative diseases. Oxidative stress has been shown to activate extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK)1/2. We investigated the role of these mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) in oxidative neuronal injury by using a mouse hippocampal cell line (HT22) and rat primary cortical cultures. Here, we show that a novel MAPK/ERK kinase (MEK) specific inhibitor U0126 profoundly protected HT22 cells against oxidative stress induced by glutamate, which was accompanied by an inhibition of phosphorylation of ERK1/2. U0126 also protected rat primary cultured cortical neurons against glutamate or hypoxia. However, U0126 was not protective against death caused by tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha), A23187, or staurosporine. These results indicate that MEK plays a central role in the neuronal death caused by oxidative stress.