OBJECTIVE: To study the role of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) in cerebral ischemia and the mechanism of protective effects of U0126 (1,4-diamino-2,3-dicyano-1,4-bis[2-aminophenylthio] butadiene) on ischemic brain. METHODS: Mice underwent left middle cerebral artery occlusion (MCAO) by introducing a suture in the lumen. U0126 was injected intravenously through the internal jugular vein. The immuno-activity of phosphorylated ERK1/2 (pERK1/2), phosphorylated mitogen activated protein kinase kinase (pMEK), and phosphorylated Elk-1 (pElk-1) was assessed by Western blot analysis and immunohistochemistry. Interleukin (IL)-1beta mRNA level was measured by ribonuclease protection assay. RESULTS: Phosphorylated ERK1/2 in 2 hours MCAO mice was down-regulated after intravenous injection of U0126. The inhibition was dose dependent and treatment time related. pMEK and pElk-1 were also reduced in a similar fashion after U0126 treatment. IL-1beta mRNA increased after 1 and 2 hours of MCAO. After injection of U0126, it was down-regulated during 1 to 4 hours after MCAO. CONCLUSION: Intravenous administration of the MEK inhibitor U0126 inhibits pMEK, pERK1/2, and pElk-1 up-regulation induced by cerebral ischemia. The protective effect of U0126 against ischemic injury is probably resulted from the reduction of IL-1beta mRNA via the inhibition of ERK pathway.