Extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) is highly sensitive to regulation by neuronal activity and is critically involved in several forms of synaptic plasticity. These features suggested that alterations in ERK signaling might occur in epilepsy. Previous studies have described increased ERK phosphorylation immediately after the induction of severe seizures, but patterns of ERK activation in epileptic animals during the chronic period have not been determined. Thus, the localization and abundance of phosphorylated extracellular signal-regulated kinase (pERK) were examined in a pilocarpine model of recurrent seizures in C57BL/6 mice during the seizure-free period and at short intervals after spontaneous seizures. Immunolabeling of pERK in control animals revealed an abundance of distinctly-labeled neurons within the hippocampal formation. However, in pilocarpine-treated mice during the seizure-free period, the numbers of pERK-labeled neurons were substantially decreased throughout much of the hippocampal formation. Double labeling with a general neuronal marker suggested that the decrease in pERK-labeled neurons was not due primarily to cell loss. The decreased ERK phosphorylation in seizure-prone animals was interpreted as a compensatory response to increased neuronal excitability within the network. Nevertheless, striking increases in pERK labeling occurred at the time of spontaneous seizures and were evident in large populations of neurons at very short intervals (as early as 2 min) after detection of a behavioral seizure. These findings suggest that increased pERK labeling could be one of the earliest immunohistochemical indicators of neurons that are activated at the time of a spontaneous seizure.