Radicals are species containing one or more unpaired electrons, such as nitric oxide (NO.). The oxygen radical superoxide (O2.-) and the nonradical hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) are produced during normal metabolism and perform several useful functions. Excessive production of O2.- and H2O2 can result in tissue damage, which often involves generation of highly reactive hydroxyl radical (.OH) and other oxidants in the presence of "catalytic" iron or copper ions. An important form of antioxidant defense is the storage and transport of iron and copper ions in forms that will not catalyze formation of reactive radicals. Tissue injury, e.g., by ischemia or trauma, can cause increased metal ion availability and accelerate free radical reactions. This may be especially important in the brain because areas of this organ are rich in iron and CSF cannot bind released iron ions. Oxidative stress on nervous tissue can produce damage by several interacting mechanisms, including increases in intracellular free Ca2+ and, possibly, release of excitatory amino acids. Recent suggestions that free radical reactions are involved in the neurotoxicity of aluminum and in damage to the substantia nigra in patients with Parkinson's disease are reviewed. Finally, the nature of antioxidants is discussed, it being suggested that antioxidant enzymes and chelators of transition metal ions may be more generally useful protective agents than chain-breaking antioxidants. Careful precautions must be used in the design of antioxidants for therapeutic use.