Apoptosis plays an important role during neuronal development, and defects in apoptosis may underlie various neurodegenerative disorders. To characterize molecular mechanisms that regulate neuronal apoptosis, the contributions to cell death of mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase family members, including ERK (extracellular signal-regulated kinase), JNK (c-JUN NH2-terminal protein kinase), and p38, were examined after withdrawal of nerve growth factor (NGF) from rat PC-12 pheochromocytoma cells. NGF withdrawal led to sustained activation of the JNK and p38 enzymes and inhibition of ERKs. The effects of dominant-interfering or constitutively activated forms of various components of the JNK-p38 and ERK signaling pathways demonstrated that activation of JNK and p38 and concurrent inhibition of ERK are critical for induction of apoptosis in these cells. Therefore, the dynamic balance between growth factor-activated ERK and stress-activated JNK-p38 pathways may be important in determining whether a cell survives or undergoes apoptosis.