Numerous observations strongly support the hypothesis that dopaminergic neurons could be particularly vulnerable to an impairment of their energetic metabolism. In order to demonstrate the existence of such a selective vulnerability, the toxic effects of rotenone, an inhibitor of complex I of the respiratory chain, and of glutamate, which is very likely involved in the neurotoxicity induced by an energetic stress, were analyzed on cultured mouse mesencephalic neurons. Toxicity toward dopaminergic and GABAergic neurons was compared by measuring the residual uptakes of dopamine and GABA. Exposure to 5 nM rotenone for 6 hr or to a low concentration of glutamate (100 microM) for 1 hr did not lead to a high selective toxic effect on dopaminergic neurons. In contrast, dopaminergic neurons were three times less resistant to the sequential exposure to rotenone and glutamate than GABAergic neurons. A particular resistance of mesencephalic GABAergic neurons to the synergistic toxic effects of rotenone and glutamate was ruled out since two other neuronal types, the striatal cholinergic and GABAergic neurons, displayed the same weak vulnerability as the mesencephalic GABAergic neurons. This selective toxic effect of glutamate on rotenone- pretreated dopaminergic neurons was blocked by either AMPA or NMDA receptor antagonists and mimicked by combined treatment with AMPA and NMDA, or by NMDA alone when the medium was deprived of Mg2+ ions. Moreover, this NMDA-selective neurotoxicity was critically dependent on the presence of a physiological extracellular sodium concentration, since the use of choline chloride instead of sodium chloride had a protective effect on dopaminergic neurons.