Dynorphin A is an endogenous opioid peptide that preferentially activates kappa-opioid receptors and is antinociceptive at physiological concentrations. Levels of dynorphin A and a major metabolite, dynorphin A (1-13), increase significantly following spinal cord trauma and reportedly contribute to neurodegeneration associated with secondary injury. Interestingly, both kappa-opioid and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonists can modulate dynorphin toxicity, suggesting that dynorphin is acting (directly or indirectly) through kappa-opioid and/or NMDA receptor types. Despite these findings, few studies have systematically explored dynorphin toxicity at the cellular level in defined populations of neurons coexpressing kappa-opioid and NMDA receptors. To address this question, we isolated populations of neurons enriched in both kappa-opioid and NMDA receptors from embryonic mouse spinal cord and examined the effects of dynorphin A (1-13) on intracellular calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) and neuronal survival in vitro. Time-lapse photography was used to repeatedly follow the same neurons before and during experimental treatments. At micromolar concentrations, dynorphin A (1-13) elevated [Ca2+]i and caused a significant loss of neurons. The excitotoxic effects were prevented by MK-801 (Dizocilpine) (10 microM), 2-amino-5-phosphopentanoic acid (100 microM), or 7-chlorokynurenic acid (100 microM)--suggesting that dynorphin A (1-13) was acting (directly or indirectly) through NMDA receptors. In contrast, cotreatment with (-)-naloxone (3 microM), or the more selective kappa-opioid receptor antagonist nor-binaltorphimine (3 microM), exacerbated dynorphin A (1-13)-induced neuronal loss; however, cell losses were not enhanced by the inactive stereoisomer (+)-naloxone (3 microM). Neuronal losses were not seen with exposure to the opioid antagonists alone (10 microM). Thus, opioid receptor blockade significantly increased toxicity, but only in the presence of excitotoxic levels of dynorphin. This provided indirect evidence that dynorphin also stimulates kappa-opioid receptors and suggests that kappa receptor activation may be moderately neuroprotective in the presence of an excitotoxic insult. Our findings suggest that dynorphin A (1-13) can have paradoxical effects on neuronal viability through both opioid and non-opioid (glutamatergic) receptor-mediated actions. Therefore, dynorphin A potentially modulates secondary neurodegeneration in the spinal cord through complex interactions involving multiple receptors and signaling pathways.