In addition to mediating several physiological functions, nitric oxide (NO) has been implicated in the cytotoxicities observed following activation of macrophages or excess stimulation of neurons by glutamate. We extend our previous observations of glutamate-stimulated, NO-mediated neurotoxicity in primary cultures of rat fetal cortical, striatal, and hippocampal neurons. Neurotoxicity elicited by either NMDA or sodium nitroprusside (SNP) exhibits a similar concentration- effect relationship and time course. The concentration-effect curve of NMDA-induced neurotoxicity is shifted to the right in the presence of nitro-L-arginine and farther to the right in arginine-free media. The rank order of potency of several NO synthase (NOS) inhibitors in preventing neurotoxicity is the same as the rank order of these compounds in inhibiting NOS, and this inhibition is stereospecific. NMDA neurotoxicity is also prevented by flavoprotein inhibitors and calmodulin inhibitors, fitting with the roles of flavoproteins and calmodulin as NOS regulators. 8-Bromo-cGMP and guanylyl cyclase inhibitors do not affect neurotoxicity, while superoxide dismutase attenuates neurotoxicity. NOS neurons appear to be the source of neurotoxic NO in culture, as lesions of these neurons with 20 microM quisqualate diminish subsequent NMDA neurotoxicity. Moreover, NMDA neurotoxicity develops over time in culture coincident with the expression of NOS. Immunohistochemical localization of NOS in cultures and intact brain demonstrates widespread distribution of the cell processes suggesting that NOS neurons contact the majority of cortical neurons and so could mediate widespread neurotoxicity.