Parkinson's disease (PD) is characterized by the relatively selective and progressive loss of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra. During the early stages of PD, there are marked compensatory changes in the dopaminergic system, although little is known of how these responses are orchestrated. Since the induction of cellular immediate-early genes (cIEG) has been linked to adaptive responses in the nervous system, we examined their expression in the N-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) murine model of PD. MPTP elicited an induction of c-fos, fosB, Delta-fosB and c-jun mRNAs in the striatum that persisted for 24 h. There was a parallel increase in AP-1-like DNA binding activity for up to 7 days post-treatment. At 7 days, AP-1 complexes were specifically supershifted with antisera to FosB and JunD. Immunoblotting of MPTP-treated striata with a FosB-specific antiserum revealed elevated levels of approximately 35 and approximately 46 kDa cross-reactive proteins. Only the 35 kDa protein was increased at 7 days. Thus, the persistent AP-1 complex seen in the MPTP-treated striatum is composed of JunD and a 35 kDa FosB-related protein, possibly Delta-FosB. In situ hybridization revealed elevated expression of fosB and Delta-fosB in the MPTP-treated brain. Expression of both transcripts was highest in ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens and other terminal fields of the mesolimbic system, such as the olfactory tubercle and Islands of Calleja. Thus, the increased fosB expression accompanying MPTP treatment was predominantly associated with dopaminergic pathways. Since FosB was expressed in both vulnerable and spared neuronal populations, we suggest that Delta-FosB-JunD heterodimers play a role in the adaptive response to MPTP neurotoxicity.