L-Cysteine produces excitotoxic brain damage but its chemical structure differs from that of other excitotoxins. Although it is an NMDAmimetic, its mode of action is complex and may encompass antiexcitotoxic components. The purpose of the present study was to investigate whether cysteine kills neurons by potentiating the effects of glutamate and/or by releasing glutamate. In primary cultures of cortical neurons, 24 h of exposure to glutamate caused a concentration-dependent, dizocilpine-sensitive cell death as measured by release of lactate dehydrogenase. Cysteine was also toxic but higher concentrations were required. In addition, N-acetylcysteine produced mild toxicity at 1 mM. There was no general potentiation between either glutamate and cysteine or glutamate and N-acetylcysteine although some combinations acted synergistically. In no case did the thiols inhibit glutamate toxicity. The interaction between glutamate and cysteine toxicity was also assessed in the immature rat arcuate nucleus in vivo. When given at a dose (0.5 mg/g) that did not cause any toxicity per se, cysteine enhanced the toxicity of glutamate (0.3-0.8 mg/g). Cortical microdialysis was carried out in anesthetized rats (8-10 days old) administered a toxic dose of cysteine (1 mg/g). The levels of taurine were elevated 15-fold, phosphoethanolamine 3-fold and alanine 2-fold. Despite the observation that glutamine decreased markedly and rapidly, there was only a delayed doubling of glutamate concentrations. It is therefore unlikely that cysteine induces neurotoxicity by releasing glutamate. Taken together, the results suggest that there is a synergistic effect between cysteine and glutamate. Speculatively, this potentiation may be produced by reduction by cysteine of the redox site of the glutamate-activated NMDA receptor-ionophore complex.