Extracellular matrix molecules are involved in the cellular functions of proliferation, migration, morphological differentiation, and synaptic plasticity. One candidate molecule of the extracellular matrix is the chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan neurocan. To determine whether neurocan expression is regulated by neuronal activity in the adult rat brain, we studied changes in hippocampal neurocan mRNA and protein expression following electrical stimulation of the perforant pathway in urethane-anesthetized rats. After 24 h of intermittent, unilateral 20 Hz stimulation, in situ hybridization revealed increased neurocan mRNA in glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP)-positive astrocytes bilaterally in all hippocampal subfields. These changes were quantified in the dentate molecular layer, the termination zone of the perforant pathway, using laser microdissection in combination with quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Immediately after 24 h stimulation, a six-fold upregulation was detected, which returned to control levels by 3 days post-stimulation. Neurocan immunoreactivity was similarly upregulated bilaterally. Immunostaining intensity reached a maximum by 4 days and returned to control levels by 14 days. The pattern of neurocan expression in the hippocampus depended on the intensity and duration of electrical stimulation. Under conditions of less intense afferent stimulation (4–24 h of2.0 Hz paired-pulse stimulation, interpulse interval 40 ms), increases in neurocan mRNA and immunoreactivity were restricted to the ipsilateral termination zone of the stimulated perforant pathway. This layer-specific neurocan upregulation was not affected by intraperitoneal application of the NMDA-receptor antagonist MK-801. In conclusion, our data indicate that synaptic activity regulates the astrocytic expression of neurocan in a graded manner. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.