We investigated the role of desensitization of α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-isoxazole-4-propionate (AMPA) receptors on the neurotoxicity and on the [Ca2+]i changes induced by kainate or by AMPA in cultured rat hippocampal neurons. The neuronal viability was evaluated either by the 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) assay, or by analysis of cell morphology. Short-term exposure of the neurons to kainate or AMPA (30 min) was not toxic, but the exposure for 24 h to the excitotoxic drugs caused a concentration-dependent neurotoxic effect which was prevented by LY 303070, a noncompetitive AMPA receptor antagonist. In the presence of cyclothiazide (CTZ), kainate or AMPA was toxic (30 min exposure), or the toxic effect was significantly enhanced (24 h exposure), but in this case LY 303070 did not completely protect the cells against kainate-induced toxicity. The alterations in the [Ca2+]i caused by kainate or AMPA showed a great cell-to-cell variability. LY 303070 completely or partially inhibited the responses stimulated by kainate. CTZ differentially affected the responses evoked by kainate or AMPA. In the majority of hippocampal neurons, CTZ did not potentiate, or only slightly potentiated, the kainate-stimulated responses but in 11% of neurons there was a great potentiation. In AMPA-stimulated neurons, the responses were slightly or greatly potentiated in the majority of neurons, but not in all of them. The results show that AMPA and kainate may be toxic, depending on the time of exposure and on the blockade of the desensitization of the AMPA receptors. Overall, our results clearly show that there exist different populations of hippocampal neurons with different sensitivities to kainate, AMPA, CTZ and LY 303070. Moreover, the effects of CTZ on both [Ca2+]i alterations and neurotoxicity are not fully correlated.