Systemic injection of kainic acid (KA) results in characteristic behaviors and programmed cell death in some regions of the rat brain. We used KA followed by recovery at 4 degrees C to restrict damage to limbic structures and compared patterns of immediate early gene (IEG) expression and associated DNA binding activity in these damaged areas with that in spared brain regions. Male Wistar rats were injected with KA (12 mg/kg, i.p.) and kept at 4 degrees C for 5 h. This treatment reduced the severity of behaviors and restricted damage (observed by Nissl staining) to the CA1 and CA3 regions of the hippocampus and an area including the entorhinal cortex. DNA laddering, characteristic of apoptosis, was first evident in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex 18 and 22 h after KA, respectively. The pattern of IEG mRNA induction fell into three classes: IEGs that were induced in both damaged and spared areas (c-fos, fos B, jun B, and egr-1), IEGs that were induced specifically in the damaged areas (fra-2 and c-jun), and an IEG that was significantly induced by saline injection and/or the cold treatment (jun D). The pattern of immunoreactivity closely followed that of mRNA expression. Binding to the AP-1 and EGR DNA consensus sequences increased in all three regions studied. This study describes a unique modification of the animal model of KA-induced neurotoxicity which may prove a useful tool for dissecting the molecular cascade that ultimately results in programmed cell death.