In monolayers of cultured rat astrocytes a number of agents that induce oxidative stress act synergistically with exposure to copper leading to rapid depolarization of the mitochondrial membrane potential (Psi m) and increased reactive oxygen species (ROS) production. Copper sensitized astrocytes to the action of menadione, an intracellular generator of superoxide anion radical, exogenous hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and rotenone, an inhibitor of mitochondrial electron transport chain complex I. However, significant differences were observed in the ability to modulate the copper-enhanced oxidative stress depending on which stressor was used. The inhibitor of mitochondrial permeability transition cyclosporin A attenuated the effect of copper and rotenone, but had no protective action in the case of H2O2/copper and menadione/copper combinations. The H2O2 scavenger pyruvate was effective at protecting mitochondria against damage associated with the combined exposure to H2O2/copper and menadione/copper but not to the rotenone/copper combination. The antioxidant Trolox was ineffective at protecting against any of these actions and indeed had a damaging effect when combined with copper. The membrane-permeable copper chelator neocuproine combined with sensitizing concentrations of menadione caused a decrease in Psi m, mimicking the action of copper. Penicillamine, a membrane-impermeable copper chelator, was effective at reducing copper sensitization. Endogenous copper, mobilized during periods of oxidative stress, may play a role in the pathophysiology of brain injury. Our results suggest that this might be particularly dangerous in dysfunctional conditions in which the mitochondrial electron transport chain is compromised.