We developed a new approach to study single- and double-stranded DNA breaks during chronic, moderate excitotoxicity resulting from the inhibition of the glutamate transporter in cerebellar granule cell primary cultures. A 24 hr treatment of 2-week-old cultures with L-alpha- amino adipate (LAA), an inhibitor of the cerebellar glutamate uptake transporter, caused a gradual extracellular accumulation of endogenous glutamate that induced reversible morphological change of granule neurons but no neuronal cell death despite sustained, but moderate, elevations of the free intracellular calcium concentrations. Nick translation experiments on isolated nuclei or cells from cerebellar cultures chronically exposed to LAA revealed increased radioactive nucleotide incorporation indicative of DNA nicking. This LAA effect was dose-dependent and suppressed by NMDA receptor antagonists. Cultures treated for 24 hr with LAA and subjected to in situ nick translation showed an intense nuclear labeling of neurons but not glia, which could be abolished by MK801. A similar labeling was also observed in altered nuclei of granule neurons acutely exposed to high glutamate concentrations or undergoing an apoptotic cell death. Although the TUNEL labeling method detected no DNA double-strand breaks in LAA- treated cerebellar cultures, it displayed clear evidence of DNA damage during acute glutamate excitotoxicity or during apoptosis. However, Southern blot analysis of nuclear DNA revealed a DNA laddering only in apoptotic cell death. Our results demonstrate that DNA damage, characterized by DNA single-strand breaks, is an early event in chronic, moderate excitotoxicity. This type of DNA degradation, which appears before any nuclear morphological changes, is distinct from the massive DNA single- and/or double-strand damages observed during acute glutamate excitotoxicity or apoptosis.