We have analyzed the role of glutamate and its receptors (GluRs) in regulating the development of oligodendrocytes. Activation of AMPA- preferring GluRs with selective agonists inhibited proliferation of purified cortical oligodendrocyte progenitor (O-2A) cells cultured with different mitogens, as measured by [3H]thymidine incorporation or bromodeoxyuridine staining. In contrast, activation of GABA or muscarinic receptors did not affect O-2A proliferation. Cell viability and apoptosis assays demonstrated that the inhibition of O-2A proliferation was not attributable to a cytotoxic action of GluR agonists, and was reversible. Activation of GluRs prevented lineage progression from the O-2A (GD3+/nestin+) stage to the prooligodendroblast (O4+) stage, but did not affect O-2A migration. Additional experiments examined the membrane ionic channels mediating these GluR activation effects. We found that proliferating O-2A cells expressed functional delayed rectifier K+ channels, which were absent in pro-oligodendroblasts. GluR agonists and the K+ channel blocker tetraethylammonium (TEA) strongly inhibited delayed rectifier K+ currents in O-2A cells. TEA reproduced the effects of GluR activation on O-2A proliferation and lineage progression in the same concentration range that blocked delayed rectifier K+ currents. These results indicate that glutamate regulates oligodendrogenesis specifically at the O-2A stage by modulating K+ channel activity.