The mechanisms underlying neurotoxicity mediated by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) and their secretory granule proteins perforin and granzymes remain unclear. We evaluated the possible role of the neurotransmitter glutamate in cell death observed in differentiated neurons exposed to CTL-derived granules. Excitotoxicity induced by excessive concentrations of extracellular glutamate is associated with a rise in intracellular calcium and can lead to generation of NO through the activation of glutamatergic N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. Consistent with an involvement of glutamate, we found that cell death in mature cerebral granule cells was inhibited by 65-80% by two NMDA receptor blockers (MK-801 and D-2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid) or a NO synthase blocker (N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methylester). Furthermore, neurons treated with secretory granules responded with a biphasic rise in the intracellular calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i). Whereas MK-801 did not interfere with the immediate rise of [Ca2+]i, the second wave of calcium accumulation starting at 40 min was delayed by 20 min and reduced in amplitude in the presence of MK-801. In immature, NMDA receptor-negative neurons, MK-801 prevented neither the cytotoxicity nor the calcium influx observed 5 min after addition of cytotoxic granules. The demonstration that NMDA receptors and NO are involved in granule-mediated killing of mature neurons opens new avenues in the treatment of neuronal cell death in CTL-mediated diseases such as viral encephalitis.