In addition to its functions as a neuronal messenger molecule, nitric oxide (NO) has also been implicated in playing a major role in ischemic damage and glutamate neurotoxicity. Using primary cortical cultures from transgenic neuronal NO synthase (NOS) null (nNOS-) mice, we definitively establish NO as a mediator of NMDA and hypoxic neurotoxicity. Neurotoxicity elicited by NMDA is markedly attenuated in nNOS- cortical cultures compared with wild-type cultures. The NOS inhibitor nitro-L-arginine is neuroprotective in wild-type but not nNOS- cultures, confirming the role of nNOS-derived NO in glutamate neurotoxicity. Confirming that the nNOS- cultures lack NMDA-stimulated nNOS activity, NMDA did not stimulate the formation of cGMP in nNOS- cultures, but markedly elevates cGMP in wild-type cultures. Both wild- type and nNOS- cultures are sensitive to toxicity induced by NO donors, indicating that pathways stimulated by NO that result in neuronal cell death are still intact in the transgenic mice. Superoxide dismutase is neuroprotective against NMDA and NO neurotoxicity in both wild-type and nNOS- cultures, highlighting the importance of superoxide anion in subsequent neuronal damage. The unknown cellular factors that endow differential resistance to NMDA neurotoxicity and differential susceptibility to quisqualate neurotoxicity remain intact in the nNOS- cultures, because the response of somatostatin-immunopositive neurons in nNOS- cultures to high-dose NMDA and low-dose quisqualate is identical to the response of NOS-immunopositive neurons in the wild- type cultures. There is no difference in susceptibility to kainate neurotoxicity between nNOS- and wild-type cultures and only a modest resistance to quisqualate neurotoxicity, confirming observations that NO-mediated neurotoxicity is associated primarily with activation of the NMDA receptor. The nNOS- cultures are markedly protected from 60 min of combined oxygen-glucose deprivation neurotoxicity compared with wild-type cultures. Wild-type cultures are protected from neuronal cell death by the NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801 and the NOS inhibitor L- nitroarginine methyl ester, but not its inactive stereoisomer D- nitroarginine methyl ester. nNOS- cultures were not additionally protected. These data confirm that activation of NMDA receptors and production of NO are primary mediators of neuronal damage after ischemic insult.