This study was designed to assess the potential neuroprotective effect of several imidazol(ine) drugs and agmatine on glutamate-induced necrosis and on apoptosis induced by low extracellular K+ in cultured cerebellar granule cells. Exposure (30 min) of energy deprived cells to L-glutamate (1-100 microM) caused a concentration-dependent neurotoxicity, as determined 24 h later by a decrease in the ability of the cells to metabolize 3-(4,5-dimethythiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazoliumbromide (MTT) into a reduced formazan product. L-glutamate-induced neurotoxicity (EC50=5 microM) was blocked by the specific NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801 (dizocilpine). Imidazol(ine) drugs and agmatine fully prevented neurotoxicity induced by 20 microM (EC100) L-glutamate with the rank order (EC50 in microM): antazoline (13)>cirazoline (44)>LSL 61122 [2-styryl-2-imidazoline] (54)>LSL 60101 [2-(2-benzofuranyl) imidazole] (75)>idazoxan (90)>LSL 60129 [2-(1,4-benzodioxan-6-yl)-4,5-dihydroimidazole](101)>RX82 1002 (2-methoxy idazoxan) (106)>agmatine (196). No neuroprotective effect of these drugs was observed in a model of apoptotic neuronal cell death (reduction of extracellular K+) which does not involve stimulation of NMDA receptors. Imidazol(ine) drugs and agmatine fully inhibited [3H]-(+)-MK-801 binding to the phencyclidine site of NMDA receptors in rat brain. The profile of drug potency protecting against L-glutamate neurotoxicity correlated well (r=0.90) with the potency of the same compounds competing against [3H]-(+)-MK-801 binding. In HEK-293 cells transfected to express the NR1-1a and NR2C subunits of the NMDA receptor, antazoline and agmatine produced a voltage- and concentration-dependent block of glutamate-induced currents. Analysis of the voltage dependence of the block was consistent with the presence of a binding site for antazoline located within the NMDA channel pore with an IC50 of 10-12 microM at 0 mV. It is concluded that imidazol(ine) drugs and agmatine are neuroprotective against glutamate-induced necrotic neuronal cell death in vitro and that this effect is mediated through NMDA receptor blockade by interacting with a site located within the NMDA channel pore.