Western blot analysis of protein extracts from rat liver revealed the presence of the mGlu5 receptor, one of the G-protein-coupled receptors activated by glutamate (named "metabotropic glutamate receptors" or mGlu receptors). mGlu5 expression was particularly high in extracts from isolated hepatocytes, where levels were comparable with those seen in the rat cerebral cortex. The presence of mGlu5 receptors in hepatocytes was confirmed by reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) analysis, immunohistochemistry in neonate or adult rat liver, as well as by immunocytochemical analysis in HepG2 hepatoma cells, where the receptor appeared to be preferentially distributed in cell membranes. Interestingly, mGlu1 receptors (which are structurally and functionally homologous to mGlu5 receptors) were never found in rat liver or hepatocytes. In hepatocytes exposed to anoxic conditions for 90 minutes, glutamate, (1S,3R)-1-aminocyclopentane-1, 3-dicarboxylic acid (1S,3R-ACPD) and quisqualate, which all activate mGlu5 receptors, accelerated the onset and increased the extent of cell damage, while 4-carboxy-3-hydroxyphenylglycine (4C3HPG), an agonist of mGlu2/3 receptors, was inactive. 2-methyl-6-(2-phenyl-1-ethynyl)-pyridine (MPEP), a novel, noncompetitive, highly selective mGlu5 receptor antagonist, not only abolished the toxic effect of 1S,3R-ACPD, but, unexpectedly, was protective by itself against anoxic damage. This suggests that hepatocytes express mGlu5 receptors and that activation of these receptors by endogenous glutamate facilitates the development of anoxic damage in hepatocytes.