Cultured rat cerebellar granule neurons are widely used as a model system for studying neuronal apoptosis. Either low K(+) (5 mM) or low concentrations of glutamate (1-10 microM) induce apoptosis in cerebellar neurons in culture. However, the molecular mechanism(s) involved remain unclear. We show that long-term treatment with ammonia prevents glutamate-induced but not low K(+)-induced apoptosis in cerebellar neurons, as assessed by measuring DNA fragmentation and activation of caspase 3. Ammonia prevented glutamate-induced increase of intracellular calcium, depolarization of the inner mitochondrial membrane, release of cytochrome c to the cytosol, activation of caspase 3 and fragmentation of DNA. However, ammonia did not prevent low K(+)-induced activation of caspase 3 and fragmentation of DNA. These results indicate that the initial steps involved in the induction of apoptosis by low K(+) or by glutamate are different and that ammonia prevents glutamate-induced apoptosis by reducing glutamate-induced rise of intracellular Ca(2+), thus avoiding the activation of subsequent events of the apoptotic process.