Insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) is currently in clinical trials for treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), but little is known about how it promotes the survival of motor neurons. In the current study, we examined IGF-I-mediated neuroprotection in an in vitro model of ALS utilizing enriched cultures of embryonic rat spinal cord motor neurons. IGF-I binds to the IGF-I receptor (IGF-IR) in motor neurons and activates MAPK and the downstream effector of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI-3K) signaling, Akt. IGF-I:IGF-IR signaling involves phosphorylation of IRS-1 and Shc, but not IRS-2. Glutamate, which is elevated in the cerebrospinal fluid of ALS patients, induced DNA fragmentation and caspase-3 cleavage in the spinal cord motor neurons. These effects of glutamate were blocked by co-treatment with IGF-I. However, a delay of IGF-I treatment for as little as 30 min eliminated its neuroprotective effect. Finally, alone, neither the MAPK pathway inhibitor PD98059 nor the PI-3K inhibitor LY294002 blocked the neuroprotective effect of IGF-I, but both inhibitors together were effective in this regard. These results suggest that the dose and timing of IGF-I administration are critical for producing a neuroprotective effect, and also suggest that both the MAPK and PI-3K/Akt pathways can promote the survival of motor neurons. We discuss our results in terms of novel strategies for ALS therapy.