The molecular mechanisms underlying AMPA (alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionate) receptor-mediated excitotoxicity were characterized in rat oligodendrocyte progenitor cultures. Activation of AMPA receptors, in the presence of cyclothiazide to selectively block desensitization, produced a massive Ca(2+) influx and cytotoxicity which were blocked by the antagonists CNQX and GYKI 52466. A role for free radical generation in oligodendrocyte progenitor cell death was deduced from three observations: (i) treatment with AMPA agonists decreased intracellular glutathione; (ii) depletion of intracellular glutathione with buthionine sulfoximine potentiated cell death; and (iii) the antioxidant N -acetylcysteine replenished intracellular glutathione and protected cultures from AMPA receptor-mediated toxicity. Cell death displayed some characteristics of apoptosis, including DNA fragmentation, chromatin condensation and activation of caspase-3 and c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK). A substrate of calpain and caspase-3, alpha-spectrin, was cleaved into characteristic products following treatment with AMPA agonists. In contrast, inhibition of either caspase-3 by DEVD-CHO or calpain by PD 150606 protected cells from excitotoxicity. Our results indicate that overactivation of AMPA receptors causes apoptosis in oligodendrocyte progenitors through mechanisms involving Ca(2+) influx, depletion of glutathione, and activation of JNK, calpain, and caspase-3.