OBJECTIVE: The aims of our study are to evaluate the effect of curcumin on spinal cord neural progenitor cell (SC-NPC) proliferation and to clarify the mechanisms of mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase signaling pathways in SC-NPCs. METHODS: We established cultures of SC-NPCs, extracted from the spinal cord of Sprague-Dawley rats weighing 250 g to 350 g. We measured proliferation rates of SC-NPCs after curcumin treatment at different dosage. The immuno-blotting method was used to evaluate the MAP kinase signaling protein that contains extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERKs), p38, c-Jun NH2-terminal kinases (JNKs) and beta-actin as the control group. RESULTS: Curcumin has a biphasic effect on SC-NPC proliferation. Lower dosage (0.1, 0.5, 1 microM) of curcumin increased SC-NPC proliferation. However, higher dosage decreased SC-NPC proliferation. Also, curcumin stimulates proliferation of SC-NPCs via the MAP kinase signaling pathway, especially involving the p-ERK and p-38 protein. The p-ERK protein and p38 protein levels varied depending on curcumin dosage (0.5 and 1 microM, p<0.05). CONCLUSION: Curcumin can stimulate proliferation of SC-NPCs via ERKs and the p38 signaling pathway in low concentrations.