We examined the hypoxic tolerance phenomenon in vitro. Brief exposure to hypoxia induced the production of basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) mRNA and protein in rat cortical neurons and protected them from hypoxic injury. Cortical neurons were cultured from 18th-day rat embryos in a serum-free medium and subjected to brief (4 h) and/or prolonged (24 h) hypoxia. Neuronal damage was assessed by quantifying lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) activity in the medium. After brief hypoxia, LDH release was identical to that of the controls, whereas prolonged hypoxia caused a significant increase in LDH release, indicating neuronal death. However, if brief hypoxia was applied 2 days prior to the prolonged hypoxia, no increase in LDH release was observed. The bFGF mRNA expression was assessed with Northern blot and protein immunoreactivity with Western blot analysis. The brief period of hypoxia caused a 2.5-fold increase in bFGF mRNA and considerable bFGF protein expression 1 day later, but prolonged hypoxia caused increase in the expression of bFGF mRNA at 2 days and no protein expression until 3 days after the start of the hypoxia. When cells were subjected to prolonged hypoxia 2 days after brief hypoxia, however, no increase in bFGF mRNA was observed, while bFGF protein was expressed continuously. We also observed that exogenously applied bFGF reduced neuronal injury produced by prolonged hypoxia. The results obtained with this model suggest that brief hypoxia induces bFGF protein and thus tolerance to subsequent lethal hypoxia. Basic FGF might play a role as a tolerance-associated factor in this process. Thus, an in vitro model is useful for assessing the response of cortical neurons to hypoxic stress and for researching new factors related to ischemic tolerance.