Extracellular accumulations of excitatory amino acids (EAAs) may mediate ischemic neuronal damage. Metabolic insults can decrease Na+ and K+ plasma membrane gradients, thereby reducing the driving force for uptake of EAAs into cells by Na(+)-dependent EAA cotransporters. EAA accumulations could result from decreased uptake and increased release due to reversal of these cotransporters. ATP depletion, uptake, and release of EAAs were measured by HPLC in slices treated with metabolic inhibitors. Inhibition and reversal of cotransporters were determined by uptake or release of D,L-threo-beta-hydroxyaspartate (OH- Asp), an EAA analog with high affinity for cotransporters. Moderate ATP depletion (7 > ATP nmol/mg protein > 3) reduced uptake by cotransporters without increasing release of EAAs. When ATP was severely depleted (ATP < 2 nmol/mg protein), increased release of EAAs and preloaded OH-Asp occurred, consistent with reversal of cotransporters. Release of glutamine and asparagine was not increased, confirming that release was not primarily due to nonselective increased membrane permeability. ATP depletion and ouabain acted synergistically to produce EAA release, strongly suggesting release was largely mediated by inhibition of Na/K-ATPases. Severe ATP depletion decreased glutamate-like immunoreactivity primarily in axonal terminal-like structures, suggesting release occurred primarily from terminals. Moderate ATP depletion may increase extracellular EAAs by decreasing uptake. Severe ATP depletion may further increase EAAs by reversing uptake, thereby releasing cytosolic neuronal pools of EAAs.