We previously reported that pretreatment of murine cortico-hippocampal neuronal cultures with the complement-derived anaphylatoxin C5a, protects against glutamate neurotoxicity. In this study we explored the potential mechanisms involved in C5a-mediated neuroprotection. We found that C5a neuroprotects in vitro through inhibition of apoptotic death because pretreatment with human recombinant (hr)C5a prevented nuclear DNA fragmentation coincidental to inhibition of the pro-apoptotic caspase 3 activity mediated by glutamate treatment. Also, hrC5a-mediated responses appeared to be receptor-mediated because pretreatment of cultures with the specific C5a receptor antagonist C177, prevented hrC5a-mediated neuroprotection. Based on this evidence, we further explored possible signaling pathways involved in hrC5a inhibition of caspase 3 activation and apoptotic neuronal death. We found that treatment of cultures with the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway inhibitor PD98059 prevented hrC5a-mediated inhibition of caspase 3 and apoptotic neuron death. MAPK pathways, whose activation by hrC5a is inhibited by PD98059 and C177, include the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK)2 and, to a lesser extent, ERK1. The study suggests that C5a may protect against glutamate-induced apoptosis in neurons through MAPK-mediated regulation of caspase cascades.