Vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) provides neuroprotection against beta-amyloid toxicity in models of Alzheimer's disease. A superactive analogue, stearyl-Nle17-VIP (SNV) is a 100-fold more potent than VIP. In primary neuronal cultures, VIP protective activity may be mediated by femtomolar-acting glial proteins such as activity-dependent neurotrophic factor (ADNF), activity-dependent neuroprotective protein (ADNP), peptide derivatives ADNF-9 (9aa) and NAP (8aa), respectively. It has been hypothesized that beta-amyloid induces oxidative stress leading to neuronal cell death. Similarly, dopamine and its oxidation products were suggested to trigger dopaminergic nigral cell death in Parkinson's disease. We now examined the possible protective effects of VIP against toxicity of dopamine, 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) and 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium ion (MPP+) in neuronal cultures [rat pheochromocytoma (PC12), human neuroblastoma (SH-SY5Y) and rat cerebellar granular cells]. Remarkably low concentrations of VIP (10(-16)-10(-8) M), ADNF-9 and NAP (10(-18)-10(-10) M) protected against dopamine and 6-OHDA toxicity in PC12 and neuroblastoma cells. VIP (10(-11)-10(-9) M) and SNV (10(-13)-10(-11) M), protected cerebellar granule neurons against 6-OHDA. In contrast, VIP did not rescue neurons from death associated with MPP+. Since dopamine toxicity is linked to the red/ ox state of the cellular glutathione, we investigated neuroprotection in cells depleted of reduced glutathione (GSH). Buthionine sulfoximine (BSO), a selective inhibitor of glutathione synthesis, caused a marked reduction in GSH in neuroblastoma cells and their viability decreased by 70-90%. VIP, SNV or NAP (over a wide concentration range) provided significant neuroprotection against BSO toxicity. These results show that the mechanism of neuroprotection by VIP/SNV/NAP may be mediated through raising cellular resistance against oxidative stress. Our data suggest these compounds as potential lead compounds for protective therapies against Parkinson's disease.