Recently, erythropoietin has been shown to be produced by astrocytes and its production is hypoxia-inducible. In the present study, we demonstrated, using a reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction assay and immunostaining of the cells, that the erythropoietin receptor was expressed in cultured hippocampal and cerebral cortical neurons of day 19 rat embryo. Erythropoietin protected the cultured neurons from glutamate neurotoxicity. Neurons cultured for seven to 10 days were exposed to glutamate for 15 min and after culture for a further 24 h in the absence of glutamate the neuron survival was assayed. Significant protection was observed with erythropoietin from 3 pM (c. 100 pg/ml) in a dose-dependent manner. The protection was completely reversed by co-application of a soluble erythropoietin receptor, an extracellular domain capable of binding with erythropoietin. For exhibition of the neuroprotective effect, exposure of neurons to erythropoietin approximately 8 h prior to exposure to glutamate was required. Experiments with the inhibitors indicated that RNA and protein syntheses were necessary for the protection. However, exposure to erythropoietin for a short period (5 min or less) was sufficient to elicit the protective effect. The protective effect of erythropoietin was blocked by the simultaneous addition of EGTA. These findings and the previous finding that erythropoietin induces a rapid and transient increase in intracellular Ca2+ concentration in neuronal cells suggest that erythropoietin plays a neuroprotective role in brain injury caused by hypoxia or ischemia and that erythropoietin-induced Ca2+ influx from outside of the cells is a critical initial event yielding an enhanced resistance of the neurons to glutamate toxicity.