Oxidative stress may have an important role in the progression of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) and prion diseases. Oxidative damage could result from interactions between highly reactive transition metals such as copper (Cu) and endogenous reducing and/or oxidizing molecules in the brain. One such molecule, homocysteine, a thiol-containing amino acid, has previously been shown to modulate Cu toxicity in HeLa and endothelial cells in vitro. Due to a possible link between hyperhomocysteinemia and AD, we examined whether interaction between homocysteine and Cu could potentiate Cu neurotoxicity. Primary mouse neuronal cultures were treated with homocysteine and either Cu (II), Fe (II or III) or Zn (II). Homocysteine was shown to selectively potentiate toxicity from low micromolar concentrations of Cu. The toxicity of homocysteine/Cu coincubation was dependent on the ability of homocysteine to reduce Cu (II) as reflected by the inhibition of toxicity with the Cu (I)-specific chelator, bathocuproine disulphonate. This was supported by data showing that homocysteine reduced Cu (II) more effectively than cysteine or methionine but did not reduce Fe (III) to Fe (II). Homocysteine also generated high levels of hydrogen peroxide in the presence of Cu (II) and promoted Abeta/Cu-mediated hydrogen peroxide production and neurotoxicity. The potentiation of metal toxicity did not involve excitotoxicity as ionotropic glutamate receptor antagonists had no effect on neurotoxicity. Homocysteine alone also had no effect on neuronal glutathione levels. These studies suggest that increased copper and/or homocysteine levels in the elderly could promote significant oxidant damage to neurons and may represent additional risk factor pathways which conspire to produce AD or related neurodegenerative conditions.