Stress has been shown to affect brain structural plasticity, promote long-term changes in multiple neurotransmitter systems and cause neuronal atrophy. However, the mechanisms involved in these stress-related neural alterations are still poorly understood. Mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) cascades play a crucial role in the transduction of neurotrophic signal from the cell surface to the nucleus and are implicated in the modulation of synaptic plasticity and neuronal survival. An intriguing possibility is that stress might influence brain plasticity through its effects on selective members of such intracellular signalling cascades responsible for the transduction of neurotrophin signals. Here, we have investigated the effects of stress on the expression of three members of the MAPK/extracellular-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway such as phospho-ERK1, phospho-ERK2 and phospho-cAMP/calcium-responsive element-binding protein (CREB) in the adult rat brain. Male rats were subjected to mild footshocks and the patterns of protein expression were analysed after 21 consecutive days of stress. We found that chronic stress induced a pronounced and persistent ERK1/2 hyperphosphorylation in dendrites of the higher prefrontocortical layers (II and III) and a reduction of phospho-CREB expression in several cortical and subcortical regions. We hypothesized that defects in ERK signalling regulation combined with a reduced phospho-CREB activity may be a crucial mechanism by which sustained stress may induce atrophy of selective subpopulations of vulnerable cortical neurons and/or distal dendrites. Thus, ERK-mediated cortical abnormalities may represent a specific path by which chronic stress affects the functioning of cortical structures and causes selective neural network defects.