Parkinson's disease is characterized by chronic progression of dopaminergic neuronal death, the mechanism of which is still unknown. Although methyl-4-phenylpyridium ion (MPP+) or MPP+-like substance, that can reduce mitochondrial complex I activity, is supposed to be a causative agent for Parkinson's disease, it is difficult to explain the chronic neuronal degeneration for years. It is important to identify other putative agents capable of causing chronic cell death besides MPP+. We hypothesized that treatment with small doses of MPP+, not causing severe damage to dopaminergic neurons but merely reducing the activity of mitochondrial complex I, can be a model of Parkinson's disease, and that glutamate can be a putative agent causing chronic neuronal degeneration. Using primary culture of the rat mesencephalon, we investigated glutamate-induced cytotoxicity against dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic neurons with or without the pretreatment with MPP+. Brief exposure to glutamate showed similar cytotoxicity against both dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic neurons. An N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonist completely blocked the glutamate-induced cytotoxicity against both dopaminergic and non-dopaminergic neurons. In the dopaminergic neurons, MPP+ caused cytotoxicity that was not blocked by co-administration of MK-801. After pretreatment with small doses of MPP+, sub-lethal doses of glutamate caused severe cell damage restricted to dopaminergic neurons, suggesting that MPP+ potentiates the glutamate-induced cytotoxicity only against dopaminergic neurons. As glutamate is putatively capable of causing cytotoxicity against dopaminergic neurons, the present findings might be important in considering the pathogenesis of dopaminergic neuronal degeneration and a possible therapeutic application of glutamate receptor antagonists in Parkinson's disease. © 1996 Wiley-Liss, Inc.