To address the influence of oxidative stress and defense capacities in the effects of transient hypoxia in the immature brain, the time course of reactive oxygen species generation was monitored by flow cytometry using dihydrorhodamine 123 and 2',7'-dichlorofluorescein-diacetate in cultured neurons issued from the fetal rat forebrain and subjected to hypoxia/reoxygenation (6 h/96 h). Parallel transcriptional and activity changes of superoxide dismutases, glutathione peroxidase and catalase were analyzed, in line with cell outcome. The study confirmed hypoxia-induced delayed apoptotic death, and depicted increased mitochondrial and cytosolic productions of free radicals (+30%) occurring over the 48-h period after the restoration of oxygen supply, with sequential stimulations of superoxide dismutases. Whereas catalase mRNA levels and activity were augmented by cell reoxygenation, glutathione peroxidase activity was transiently repressed (-24%), along with reduced glutathione reductase activity (-27%) and intracellular glutathione depletion (-19%). Coupled with the neuroprotective effects of the glutathione precursor N-acetyl-cysteine (50 microM), these data suggest that hypoxia/reoxygenation-induced production of reactive oxygen species can overwhelm glutathione-dependent antioxidant capacity, and thus may contribute to the resulting neuronal apoptosis.