We previously reported that the histamine H1 receptor antagonist terfenadine enhances the excitotoxic response to N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor agonists in cerebellar neurons. Here we investigated whether this unexpected action of terfenadine relates to its antihistamine activity, and which specific events in the signal cascade coupled to NMDA receptors are affected by terfenadine. Low concentrations of NMDA (100 microM) or glutamate (15 microM) that were only slightly (<20%) toxic when added alone, caused extensive cell death in cultures pre-exposed to terfenadine (5 microM) for 5 h. Terfenadine potentiation of NMDA receptor response was mimicked by other H1 antagonists, including chlorpheniramine (25 microM), oxatomide (20 microM), and triprolidine (50 microM), was prevented by histamine (1 mM), and did not require RNA synthesis. Terfenadine increased NMDA-mediated intracellular calcium and cGMP synthesis by approximately 2.4 and 4 fold respectively. NMDA receptor-induced cell death in terfenadine-treated neurons was associated with a massive production of hydrogen peroxides, and was significantly inhibited by the application of either (+)-alpha-tocopherol (200 microM) or the endogenous antioxidant melatonin (200 microM) 15 min before or up to 30 min after receptor stimulation. This operational time window suggests that an enduring production of reactive oxygen species is critical for terfenadine-induced NMDA receptor-mediated neurodegeneration, and strengthens the importance of antioxidants for the treatment of excitotoxic injury. Our results also provide direct evidence for antihistamine drugs enhancing the transduction signaling activated by NMDA receptors in cerebellar neurons.