Extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) belongs to the family of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), which are serine-threonine kinases activated by phosphorylation in response to a variety of mitogenic signals. We previously reported that 17 beta-estradiol rapidly activates ERK in the rat hippocampus. However, the physiological role of this rapid activation of ERK by estrogen in vivo has not yet been elucidated. This study investigated whether ERK may participate in mediating the neuroprotective effects of estrogen against quinolinic acid (QA) toxicity in the rat hippocampus in vivo. Injection of QA into the hippocampi of male rats produced a loss of Nissl-stained neurons in the CA1 after 24 h. Prior administration of 17 beta-estradiol (50 pmol/animal) to the ventricles prevented the QA-induced decrease in Nissl-stained neurons. Pretreatment with U0126, an inhibitor of MAPK/ERK kinase, inhibited the rapid activation of ERK by 17 beta-estradiol in the rat hippocampus. Moreover, the neuroprotective effects of 17beta-estradiol against QA toxicity were blocked by the pretreatment with U0126. U0126 alone did not produce a loss of neurons. These results indicate that ERK mediates estrogen neuroprotection after QA toxicity in the rat hippocampus.