Sepsis-associated encephalopathy (SAE) has typically been associated with a poor prognosis. Although sestrin 2 (SESN2) plays a crucial role in metabolic regulation and the stress response, its expression and functional roles in SAE are still unclear. In the present study, SAE was established in mice through caecal ligation and puncture (CLP). The adeno-associated virus 2 (AAV2)-mediated SESN2 expression (ie overexpression and knockdown) system was injected into the hippocampi of mice with SAE, and subsequently followed by electron microscopic analysis, the Morris water maze task and pathological examination. Our results demonstrated an increase of SESN2 in the hippocampal neurons of mice with SAE, 2-16 hours following CLP. AAV2-mediated ectopic expression of SESN2 attenuated brain damage and loss of learning and memory functions in mice with SAE, and these effects were associated with lower pro-inflammatory cytokines in the hippocampus. Mechanistically, SESN2 promoted unc-51-like kinase 1 (ULK1)-dependent autophagy in hippocampal neurons through the activation of the AMPK/mTOR signalling pathway. Finally, AMPK inhibition by SBI-0206965 blocked SESN2-mediated attenuation of SAE in mice. In conclusion, our findings demonstrated that SESN2 might be a novel pharmacological intervention strategy for SAE treatment through promotion of ULK1-dependent autophagy in hippocampal neurons.© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine published by Foundation for Cellular and Molecular Medicine and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.