We have previously demonstrated that estradiol reduces cell death in cortical explant cultures following injury induced by metabolic inhibition in a receptor-dependent fashion. In this study, we examined whether cell death involves apoptosis and assessed the potential mediators of estradiol's actions. Cortical explant cultures were generated from postnatal day 3 rat pups. On day 7 in vitro, explants were injured by exposure to 1 mM 2-DG/2 mM KCN for 2 h to model the metabolic inhibition observed during ischemia. Explants were fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde at 2, 6, 10 and 24 h following the injury period and 18-microm thick sections were cut on a cryostat and stained with cresyl violet to assess cell death. The same sections were also labeled by TUNEL to determine whether cell death occurred by apoptosis. Other sections were used for immunohistochemistry to determine whether cells that stained positive for activated caspase 3 were also immunopositive for NeuN, a neuronal marker, or GFAP, an astrocyte marker. Protein was extracted for Western blot analysis from a separate set of explants collected at 0, 0.5, 1, 2 and 4 h following the conclusion of the injury. Estradiol treatment significantly reduced the number of cells undergoing apoptotic cell death as indicated by nuclear condensation visualized by cresyl violet staining (P<0.05). TUNEL staining revealed that the majority of pyknotic and fragmented nuclei were also TUNEL positive. Furthermore, caspase 3 activation appeared to be restricted to neurons. To examine a possible mechanism by which estradiol prevents apoptosis, we examined the level of activation of Akt kinase, which mediates antiapoptotic signals. Potential activation was measured by phosphorylation of Akt at Ser473 by Western blot analysis. In the absence of estradiol, pAkt levels were significantly increased at 2 h following the termination of injury. Explants that were pretreated with estradiol exhibited elevated levels of pAkt at 1 h following injury. Treatment with ICI 182,780 prevented the effect of estradiol. These studies suggest that estradiol prevents injury-induced apoptosis and that Akt activation may mediate these protective effects.