Neurons undergoing apoptosis can be rescued by trophic factors that simultaneously increase the activity of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) and decrease c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) and p38. We identified a molecule, CEP-1347 (KT7515), that rescues motoneurons undergoing apoptosis and investigated its effect on ERK1 and JNK1 activity. Cultured rat embryonic motoneurons, in the absence of trophic factor, began to die 24-48 hr after plating. During the first 24 hr ERK1 activity was unchanged, whereas JNK1 activity increased fourfold. CEP-1347 completely rescued motoneurons for at least 72 hr with an EC50 of 20 +/- 2 nM. CEP-1347 did not alter ERK1 activity but rapidly inhibited JNK1 activation. The IC50 of CEP-1347 for JNK1 activation was the same as the EC50 for motoneuron survival. Inhibition of JNK1 activation by CEP-1347 was not selective to motoneurons. CEP-1347 also inhibited JNK1 activity in Cos7 cells under conditions of ultraviolet irradiation, osmotic shock, and inhibition of glycosylation. Inhibition by CEP-1347 of the JNK1 signaling pathway appeared to be selective, because CEP-1347 did not inhibit p38-regulated mitogen-activated protein kinase-activated protein kinase-2 (MAPKAP2) activity in Cos7 cells subjected to osmotic shock. The direct molecular target of CEP-1347 was not JNK1, because CEP-1347 did not inhibit JNK1 activity in Cos7 cells cotransfected with MEKK1 and JNK1 cDNA constructs. This is the first demonstration of a small organic molecule that promotes motoneuron survival and that simultaneously inhibits the JNK1 signaling cascade.