Hypoxic and ischaemic brain damage are believed to involve excessive release of glutamate, and recent work shows that glutamate-induced damage in brain slices can be reduced by preconditioning with hypoxia or glutamate itself. Because adenosine is a powerful preconditioning agent, we have investigated whether adenosine could precondition against glutamate in vitro. In rat hippocampal slices, glutamate depolarization reduced the amplitudes of antidromic- and orthodromic-evoked potentials, with only partial recovery. Applying adenosine before these insults failed to increase that recovery. Ouabain also produced depolarization with partial reversibility, but adenosine pretreatment increased the extent of recovery. The preconditioning effect of adenosine on ouabain responses was prevented by blocking receptors for N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA), but not receptors for kainate or α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA), and was blocked by inhibiting nitric oxide synthase. Preconditioning was also abolished by the ATP-dependent potassium channel blockers, glibenclamide (cytoplasmic) or 5-hydroxydecanoate (mitochondrial). We conclude that adenosine does not precondition against glutamate in hippocampal slices, but that it does precondition against ouabain with a pharmacology similar to studies in vivo. Ischaemic neuronal damage is a complex of many factors, and because adenosine can precondition against ischaemic neuronal damage, its failure to protect against glutamate highlights limitations of using glutamate alone as a model for ischaemia. Because damage following ischaemia, trauma or excitotoxicity also involves reduced Na+,K+-ATPase activity, and adenosine can precondition against ouabain, we propose that ouabain-induced damage represents an additional or alternative model for the contribution to cell damage of Na+,K+-ATPase loss, this being more relevant to the mechanisms of preconditioning.