Whereas a cardinal role for beta-amyloid protein (Abeta) has been postulated as a major trigger of neuronal injury in Alzheimer's disease, the pathogenic mechanism by which Abeta deranges nerve cells remains largely elusive. Here we report correlative in vitro and in vivo evidence that an excitotoxic cascade mediates Abeta neurotoxicity in the rat magnocellular nucleus basalis (MBN). In vitro application of Abeta to astrocytes elicits rapid depolarization of astroglial membranes with a concomitant inhibition of glutamate uptake. In vivo Abeta infusion by way of microdialysis in the MBN revealed peak extracellular concentrations of excitatory amino acid neurotransmitters within 20-30 min. Abeta-triggered extracellular elevation of excitatory amino acids coincided with a significantly enhanced intracellular accumulation of Ca2+ in the Abeta injection area, as was demonstrated by 45Ca2+ autoradiography. In consequence of these acute processes delayed cell death in the MBN and persistent loss of cholinergic fibre projections to the neocortex appear as early as 3 days following the Abeta-induced toxic insult. Such a sequence of Abeta toxicity was effectively antagonized by the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor ligand dizocilpine maleate (MK-801). Moreover, Abeta toxicity in the MBN decreases with advancing age that may be associated with the age-related loss of NMDA receptor expression in rats. In summary, the present results indicate that Abeta compromises neurons of the rat MBN via an excitotoxic pathway including astroglial depolarization, extracellular glutamate accumulation, NMDA receptor activation and an intracellular Ca2+ overload leading to cell death.