Increasing evidence implicates glutamate receptor over-stimulation in the neurotoxicity associated with a host of metabolic insults, including seizures and hypoxia-ischemia. To begin to understand more completely the role of energy metabolism in the mechanism of neuron death following excitatory amino acid exposure, we investigated the effects of kainic acid exposure on metabolic rate in cultured hippocampal cells using a recently developed silicon microphysiometer. The device gives a continual real-time measure of metabolism in relatively small numbers of cells, as assessed by efflux of protons generated at least in part by ATP hydrolysis and lactic acid production. In the first half of this report, we characterize the feasibility of using this device for measuring cellular metabolism in hippocampal cultures. Metabolic rate in both astrocytes and neurons was readily detectable, with a high signal-to-noise ratio. The rate was proportional to the number of cells and was sensitive to metabolic enhancement or depression. We then utilized this device to study metabolic responses to the excitotoxin kainic acid. We observed a receptor-mediated, dose-dependent increase in metabolic rate upon stimulation by kainic acid, with an EC50 of approximately 100 microM. Exposure to toxic levels of kainic acid for 10 min produced an initial elevation (for 2 hr) in metabolic rate and then a gradual decline in metabolism over the next 8 hr that preceded a measurable loss of cell viability. This study further delineates a time window for the onset of kainic acid-induced damage. The results clearly show the feasibility of using silicon microphysiometry for assessing metabolism of brain cultures and for exploring the relationship between metabolism and synaptic activation.