When cerebellar granule cells that had been cultured in vitro for 8 days were subjected to a cytotoxic glutamate pulse (100 μM, 30 min incubation), the response varied according to cell density and the volume of medium in which cells were grown. Thus, lowering the cell density by a factor of 4 compared with usual conditions (2.6 × 105 cells/cm2) or increasing the volume by an identical 4-fold factor reduced cell death from 90-95% to 20-30%. Addition of a conditioned medium derived from high-density to low-density cultures or to high-volume cultures markedly increased the sensitivity of the cells to glutamate. This glutamate-sensitizing activity, which accelerated by several days the onset of the response of cerebellar cultures to glutamate, was inhibited by actinomycin D and was not detectable in conditioned medium derived from confluent cultures of cerebellar astroglia, or from cell lines such as PC12, GT1-7, 3T3 and CHP 100. Glutamate-sensitizing activity was not mimicked by triiodo-L-thyronine, insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I), truncated IGF-I, GPE [a tripeptide (gly-pro-glu) derived from IGF-I], brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), basic fibroblast growth factor or tumour necrosis factor-α. However, IGF-I added to cultures of granule cells plated at high density and grown in basal medium Eagle's without serum or any other constituent of chemically defined media was capable of supporting production of glutamate-sensitizing activity to an extent similar to that shown by whole fetal calf serum. Under the same conditions triodoi-L-thyronine and BDNF did not support the production of glutamate-sensitizing activity. Glutamate-sensitizing activity was not mimicked by glutamate, NMDA, glycine or lactate, and was not inhibited by glucose, haemoglobin or N-Ω-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester. At variance with the response of granule cells, the response to glutamate of GABAergic cells present in the same culture was not affected by cell density or by glutamate-sensitizing activity.