The putative essential nutrient pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) can efficiently mediate reduction and oxidation reactions in a variety of systems. Therefore, we investigated whether this compound could alter the function of the NMDA receptor via a recently described redox modulatory site. In rat cortical neurons in vitro, 50 microM PQQ could reverse the enhancement of 30 microM NMDA-induced whole-cell ionic currents produced by the reducing agent dithiothreitol (DTT; 2-4 mM). PQQ also depressed native responses in a DTT-reversible fashion. In addition, 50-200 microM PQQ produced a significant degree of neuroprotection in an acute model of NMDA-mediated neurotoxicity in astrocyte-rich cultures of rat cerebral cortex. Under certain conditions, PQQ can lead to the formation of oxygen-derived free radicals, and we have previously observed that these reactive species can oxidize the NMDA receptor. Nevertheless, the enzymatic free radical scavengers superoxide dismutase and catalase (10 micrograms/ml each) did not abolish the actions of PQQ. This observation held true even in astrocyte-poor cortical cultures, where neuronal processes are directly exposed to the extracellular milieu. Therefore, under in vitro conditions in which PQQ is presented without an exogenous electron donor, it appears as if the entire neuroprotective effect of PQQ is attributable to a direct oxidation of the NMDA receptor redox site. These results suggest the possibility of a novel role for PQQ, PQQ-like substances, and quinone-containing proteins in the brain, and may represent a novel therapeutic approach for the amelioration of NMDA receptor-mediated neurotoxic injury.