Immune stimulants, such as the bacterial endotoxin, lipopolysaccharide (LPS), the human immunodeficiency virus-1 coat protein gp120, or beta-amyloid peptides, lead to glial activation and production of various immune mediators, such as nitric oxide (NO) and proinflammatory cytokines in the brain. These mediators appear to contribute to neuronal cell death in neurodegenerative diseases. However, the signaling pathways, which mediate the neurotoxic effect by the endotoxin, are not understood. The purpose of this study was to determine the role of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) in LPS-induced neurodegeneration using mesencephalic dopaminergic neuron/glia cultures. We have found that the p38 MAPK is important in LPS-induced death of mesencephalic neurons in rat neuron-glia mixed cultures. Upon treatment with 10 ng/ml LPS, the number of dopaminergic neurons decreased by 80% within 48 h, preceded by a significant production of NO by glia. Neuroprotection by selective inhibition of p38 MAPK activity paralleled a decrease in LPS-induced inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) expression. These events were significantly reduced by the selective p38 MAPK inhibitor, SB202190, but not by the inactive analogue SB202474. Inhibition of iNOS activity and NO production by treatment with GW274150 was also neuroprotective. Although the p38 MAPK inhibitor afforded significant neuroprotection from LPS toxicity in the neuron-glia mixed culture, it failed to protect dopaminergic neurons from 6-hydroxy-dopamine-induced toxicity, which acts directly on dopaminergic neurons by inducing hydroxyl radical formation from the mitochondria. The results suggest that p38 MAPK in glia plays a significant role in the LPS-induced death of mesencephalic neurons through induction of nitric oxide synthase and resulting NO production.