Previous experimental data indicate the involvement of Ca(2+)-related excitotoxic processes, possibly mediated by N-Methyl-D-Aspartate (NMDA) receptors, in beta-amyloid (beta A) neurotoxicity. On the other hand, other lines of evidence support the view that free radical generation is a critical step in the beta A-induced neurodegenerative cascade. In the present study, therefore, a neuroprotective strategy was applied to explore the contributions of each of these pathways in beta A toxicity. beta A(1-42) was injected into the magnocellular nucleus basalis of rats, while neuroprotection was achieved by either single or combined administration of the NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801 (2.5 mg/kg) and/or a vitamin E and C complex (150 mg/kg). The degree of neurodegeneration was determined by testing the animals in consecutive series of behavioral tasks, including elevated plus maze, passive avoidance learning, small open-field and open-field paradigms, followed by acetylcholinesterase (AChE), choline-acetyltransferase (ChAT), and superoxide dismutase (SOD) biochemistry. beta A injected in the nucleus basalis elicited significant anxiety in the elevated plus maze, derangement of passive avoidance learning, and altered spontaneous behaviors in both open-field tasks. A significant decrease in both AChE and ChAT accompanied by a similar decrement of MnSOD, but not of Cu/ZnSOD provided neurochemical substrates for the behavioral changes. Each of the single drug administrations protected against the neurotoxic events, whereas the combined treatment failed to ameliorate beta A toxicity.