Despite a substantial understanding of the factors regulating oligodendrocyte differentiation, the signaling mechanisms involved in this process are not well-understood. This study elaborates on the findings (Bhat NR, Zhang P (1997) FASEB J 11:A925; Baron W, Metz B, Bansal R, Hoekstra D, de Vries H (2000) Mol Cell Neurosci 15:314-329) of a role for p38 MAP kinase signaling in oligodendrocyte differentiation and myelin gene expression. When proliferating oligodendrocyte progenitors were switched to a growth factor-free differentiation medium, there was a rapid activation of p38 kinase that correlated with an increased phosphorylation of CREB, a down-stream target and a factor involved in oligodendrocyte differentiation. Addition of forskolin, a known inducer of intracellular c-AMP and of oligodendrocyte differentiation, also stimulated CREB phosphorylation in a p38 kinase dependent way. Pharmacological inhibition of p38 interfered with the morphological and antigenic changes associated with differentiating oligodendrocytes as well as with the developmental and forskolin-induced expression of myelin basic protein, thereby supporting an essential role for p38 MAPK pathway in oligodendrocyte differentiation.