The enhanced production of nitric oxide (NO) via inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) has been implicated in the pathogenesis of neuronal apoptosis after acute traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI). In the present study, to further characterize the pathways mediating the synthesis and release of NO, we examined activation of extracellular signal regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2) and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinases (p38 MAPK) in microglia/macrophages in the injured area of adult rats subjected to a complete transection at the T10 vertebrae level and assessed their role in NO production and survival of neurons by using immunohistochemistry, Western blot, RT-PCR and pharmacological interventions. Results showed activation of microglia/macrophages featured by morphological changes, as visualized immunohistochemically with the marker OX-42, in the areas adjacent to the lesion epicenter 1 h after surgery. Concomitantly, iNOS mRNA and its protein in the activated microglia/macrophages were also significantly upregulated at early hours after surgery. Their levels were maximal at 6 h, persisted for at least 24 h, and returned to basal level 72 h after SCI. Furthermore, phosphorylated ERK1/2 and p38 MAPK were activated as well in microglia/macrophages in injured area with a similar time course as iNOS. With administration of L-NAME, a NOS inhibitor, the number of apoptotic neurons was clearly decreased, as assessed with TUNEL method at 24 h after SCI. In parallel, loss of neurons induced by SCI, assessed with NeuN immunohistochemistry, was also diminished. Moreover, the effect of inhibition of phosphorylation ERK1/2 and p38 MAPK by corresponding inhibitors PD98059 and SB203580 administered before and after SCI was also investigated. Inhibition of p38 effectively reduced iNOS mRNA expression and rescued neurons from apoptosis and death in the area adjacent to the lesion epicenter; whereas the inhibition of ERK1/2 had a smaller effect on decrease of iNOS mRNA and no long-term protective effect on cell loss. These results indicate the ERK1/2 and p38 MAPK signaling pathway, especially the latter, play an important role in NO-mediated degeneration of neuron in the spinal cord following SCI. Strategies directed to blocking the initiation of this cascade prove to be beneficial for the treatment of acute SCI.