Excessive activation of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors leads to cell death in human embryonic kidney-293 (HEK) cells which have been transfected with recombinant NMDA receptors. To evaluate the role of protein kinase C (PKC) activation in NMDA-mediated toxicity, we have analyzed the survival of transfected HEK cells using trypan blue exclusion. We found that NMDA-mediated death of HEK cells transfected with NR1/NR2A subunits was increased by exposure to phorbol esters and reduced by inhibitors of PKC activation, or PKC down-regulation. The region of NR2A that provides the PKC-induced enhancement of cell death was localized to a discrete segment of the C-terminus. Use of isoform-specific PKC inhibitors showed that Ca(2+)- and lipid-dependent PKC isoforms (cPKCs), specifically PKCbeta1, was responsible for the increase in cell death when phorbol esters were applied prior to NMDA in these cells. PKC activity measured by an in vitro kinase assay was also increased in NR1A/NR2A-transfected HEK cells following NMDA stimulation. These results suggest that PKC acts on the C-terminus of NR2A to accentuate cell death in NR1/NR2A-transfected cells and demonstrate that this effect is mediated by cPKC isoforms. These data indicate that elevation of cellular PKC activity can increase neurotoxicity mediated by NMDA receptor activation.