Glutamate toxicity causes neuronal death in neurodegenerative diseases; hence, there is a need for therapeutic agents rendering functional neuroprotection. We tested the effects of 17β-estradiol (estrogen) in rat primary cortical neurons after glutamate exposure. Wright staining and ApopTag assays indicated that 0.5 μM glutamate for 24 hr caused apoptosis. Glutamate-induced apoptosis correlated with upregulation of calpain, a proapoptotic shift in the Bax:Bcl-2 ratio, and increased activation of caspase-3. Pretreatment with 10 nM estrogen prevented apoptosis, attenuated calpain upregulation, shifted the Bax:Bcl-2 ratio toward survival, and decreased caspase-3 activation. Single-cell voltage-clamp techniques were used to record whole-cell currents associated with Na+ channels, N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor channels, and kainate receptor channels. No significant differences were recorded in membrane capacitance at −70 mV in neurons treated with estrogen or estrogen plus glutamate, relative to controls. Notably, no changes in capacitance indicated that neurons treated with estrogen and glutamate did not experience apoptosis-associated cell shrinkage. No membrane potential could be recorded in the neurons treated with glutamate due to apoptosis. All recorded currents were similar in amplitude and activation/inactivation kinetics in control neurons and neurons treated with estrogen plus glutamate. Estrogen thus preserved both neuronal viability and function in this in vitro glutamate toxicity model. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.