Glutamate excitotoxicity to a large extent is mediated through activation of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-gated ion channels in several neurodegenerative diseases and ischemic stroke. Minocycline, a tetracycline derivative with antiinflammatory effects, inhibits IL-1beta-converting enzyme and inducible nitric oxide synthase up-regulation in animal models of ischemic stroke and Huntington's disease and is therapeutic in these disease animal models. Here we report that nanomolar concentrations of minocycline protect neurons in mixed spinal cord cultures against NMDA excitotoxicity. NMDA treatment alone induced microglial proliferation, which preceded neuronal death, and administration of extra microglial cells on top of these cultures enhanced the NMDA neurotoxicity. Minocycline inhibited all these responses to NMDA. Minocycline also prevented the NMDA-induced proliferation of microglial cells and the increased release of IL-1beta and nitric oxide in pure microglia cultures. Finally, minocycline inhibited the NMDA-induced activation of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) in microglial cells, and a specific p38 MAPK inhibitor, but not a p44/42 MAPK inhibitor, reduced the NMDA toxicity. Together, these results suggest that microglial activation contributes to NMDA excitotoxicity and that minocycline, a tetracycline derivative, represents a potential therapeutic agent for brain diseases.