There is increasing evidence that oxidative damage plays a major role in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), but how it contributes to motor neuron degeneration and astrocytic gliosis, two pathologic hallmarks of the disease, is unknown. A few studies have suggested that ALS motor neurons die via apoptosis and show upregulation of c-jun, an immediate early gene that is necessary for neuronal apoptosis. In order to elucidate the mechanisms of cell damage induced by oxidant stress, we have studied in ALS and control spinal cord the immunohistochemical expression of c-Jun, of JNK/SAPK, a kinase that activates c-Jun following various types of stress, and of NF-kappa B, a transcription factor that is induced by oxidant stress and has prominent neuroprotective functions. An in situ end-labeling assay was performed for detecting apoptotic cells. We show that (a) the JNK/SAPK-c-Jun pathway is dramatically overexpressed in ALS spinal cord; (b) the strongest activation occurs in astrocytes, while motor neurons show unusually low expression of the pathway; (c) increased JNK/SAPK expression in glial cells is accompanied by NF-kappa B activation, indicating the presence of a protective response to oxidant sress, which is deficient in motor neurons; (d) activation of JNK/SAPK, c-Jun and NF-kappa B is unrelated to apoptotic cell death. These results support the view that astrocytes are directly involved in the pathologic process of ALS, and might explain the selective vulnerability of motor neurons by their relative lack of antioxidant defenses.