This study was designed to distinguish and evaluate the contribution of reactive metabolite and reactive oxygen species as the mechanism of metabolism-dependent valproic acid-induced in vitro cytotoxicity. The involvement of reactive oxygen species in the mechanism of in vitro cytotoxicity was examined by the addition of a series of antioxidant enzymes and iron chelators to the reaction mixture. Addition of catalase to the reaction mixture resulted in a complete prevention of valproic acid-induced cytotoxicity. Co-incubation of a cell impermeable iron chelator deferoxamine did not effect cytotoxicity, whereas 1,10-phenanthroline, a chelator with the ability to traverse cell membranes at low concentrations, afforded significant protection against valproic acid-induced cytotoxicity. A possible inhibitory effect of catalase and 1,10-phenanthroline on the microsomal metabolism of valproic acid was disproved by the quantification of valproic acid metabolites in the presence and absence of these compounds. To assess the specificity of the mechanism of in vitro valproic acid-induced cytotoxicity, prevention of in vitro acetaminophen-induced cytotoxicity by antioxidant enzymes and iron chelators was also evaluated. Addition of catalase to the reaction mixture in the presence of acetaminophen resulted in a moderate reduction in the level of but a lack of complete protection of cytotoxicity. Addition of 1,10-phenanthroline to the reaction mixture in the presence of acetaminophen did not result in a detectable change in acetaminophen-induced cytotoxicity. These data suggest the involvement of reactive oxygen species in the mechanism of toxicity of valproic acid and perhaps reactive metabolites as the major cause of cytotoxicity in the case of acetaminophen in the in vitro model investigated. Inhibition of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase activity by various antagonists resulted in complete prevention of valproic acid-induced in vitro cytotoxicity. The cytoprotective effects of known poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase antagonists implicate poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase in the mechanism of in vitro metabolism-dependent valproic acid-induced cytotoxicity under these conditions. These results further point to nuclear DNA as the intracellular site of insult by the generated oxygen radicals. Overall, the data obtained support the hypothesis that the metabolism-dependent valproic acid-induced in vitro cytotoxicity is the result of generation of hydrogen peroxide in the medium that can readily cross cell membranes and subsequently interact intracellularly with iron to produce the highly reactive hydroxyl free radicals.