Recently, we have demonstrated that certain neurotrophic factors can induce oxidative neuronal necrosis by acting at the cognate tyrosine kinase-linked receptors. Epidermal growth factor (EGF) has neurotrophic effects via the tyrosine kinase-linked EGF receptor (EGFR), but its neurotoxic potential has not been studied. Here, we examined this possibility in mouse cortical culture. Exposure of cortical cultures to 1-100 ng/ml EGF induced gradually developing neuronal death, which was complete in 48-72 h; no injury to astrocytes was noted. Electron microscopic findings of EGF-induced neuronal death were consistent with necrosis; severe mitochondrial swelling and disruption of cytoplasmic membrane occurred, whereas nuclei appeared relatively intact. The EGF-induced neuronal death was accompanied by increased free radical generation and blocked by the anti-oxidant Trolox. Suggesting mediation by the EGFR, an EGFR tyrosine kinase-specific inhibitor, C56, attenuated EGF-induced neuronal death. In addition, inhibitors of extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase 1/2 (Erk-1/2) (PD98056), protein kinase A (H89), and protein kinase C (GF109203X) blocked EGF-induced neuronal death. A p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase inhibitor (SB203580) or glutamate antagonists (MK-801 and 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione) showed no protective effect. The present results suggest that prolonged activation of the EGFR may trigger oxidative neuronal injury in central neurons.