Excessive release of glutamate and the subsequent influx of calcium are associated with a number of neurological insults that result in neuronal death. The calcium-activated intracellular signaling pathways responsible for this excitotoxic injury are largely unknown. Here, we report that PD098059, a selective inhibitor of the calcium-activated p44/42 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAP kinase) pathway, reduces neuronal death in a cell-culture model of seizure activity. Dissociated hippocampal neurons grown chronically in the presence of kynurenate, a broad spectrum glutamate-receptor antagonist, and elevated amounts of magnesium exhibit intense seizure-like activity after the removal of these blockers of excitatory synaptic transmission. A 30-min removal of the blockers produced extensive neuronal death within 24 h as assayed by the uptake of trypan blue and the release of lactate dehydrogenase. Phospho-p44/42 MAP kinase immunoreactivity after 30 min of seizure-like activity was present in many neuronal somata and dendrites as well as some synaptic terminals, consistent with both the presynaptic and postsynaptic effects of this pathway. The addition of PD098059 (40 microM; EC50 = 10 microM) during a 30-min washout of synaptic blockers inhibited the phosphorylation of p44/42 MAP kinase and reduced both the trypan-blue staining (n = 13) and the release of lactate dehydrogenase (n = 16) by 73% +/- 18% and 75% +/- 19% (mean +/- SD), respectively. The observed neuroprotection could be caused by an effect of PD098059 on seizure-like events or on downstream signaling pathways activated by the seizure-like events. Either possibility suggests a heretofore unknown function for the p44/42 MAP kinase pathway in neurons.