Primary cortical neurones exposed to an oxidative insult in the form of hydrogen peroxide (H(2)O(2)) for 30 min showed a concentration-dependent increase in oxidative stress followed by a delayed NMDA receptor-dependent cell death measured 24 h later. Extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase (ERK1/2), c-jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) and the kinase Akt/PKB may regulate neuronal viability in response to oxidative insults. Using phospho-specific antibodies, a 15-min stimulation of neurones with H(2)O(2) (100 microm - 1 mm) produced a concentration-dependent phosphorylation of ERK1/2 and Akt/PKB that was partly dependent on extracellular Ca(2+) and phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3-K). Higher concentrations of H(2)O(2) (1 mm) also stimulated a phosphorylation of JNK which was totally dependent on extracellular Ca(2+) but not PI3-K. H(2)O(2)-induced phosphorylation of ERK1/2, Akt/PKB or JNK were unaffected by the NMDA channel blocker MK801. Blocking ERK1/2 activation with the upstream inhibitor U0126 (10 microm) enhanced H(2)O(2)-induced (100-300 microm range) neurotoxicity and inhibited H(2)O(2)-mediated phosphorylation of the cyclic AMP regulatory binding protein (CREB), suggesting that ERK1/2 signals to survival under these conditions. At higher concentrations (mm), H(2)O(2)-stimulated a phosphorylation of c-jun. It is likely, therefore, that subjecting neurones to moderate oxidative-stress recruits pro-survival signals to CREB but during severe oxidative stress pro-death signals through JNK and c-jun are dominant.