The glitazones or thiazolidinediones are ligands of the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPARgamma). The glitazones are used in the treatment of diabetes, regulate adipogenesis, inflammation, cell proliferation, and induce apoptosis in several cancer cell types. High grade astrocytomas are rapidly growing tumors derived from astrocytes, for which new treatments are needed. We determined the effects of two glitazones, ciglitazone and the therapeutic rosiglitazone, on the survival of serum-deprived primary rat astrocytes and glioma cell lines C6 and U251, which were assessed by the methylthiazolyl tetrazolium assay and lactate dehydrogenase release. Rosiglitazone (5-20 microM) decreased survival of glioma cells without affecting primary astrocytes, whereas ciglitazone at 20 microM was toxic for both cell types. Ciglitazone at 10 microM was cytoprotective for primary astrocytes but toxic to glioma cells. Cell death induced by ciglitazone, but not rosiglitazone, presented apoptotic features (Hoechst staining and externalization of phosphatidylserine). Two mechanisms to explain cytotoxicity were investigated: activation of PPARgamma and production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). PPARgamma does not seem to be the main mechanism involved, because the order of efficacy for cytotoxicity, ciglitazone > rosiglitazone, was inverse of their reported affinities for activating PPARgamma. In addition, GW9662, an inhibitor of PPARgamma, only slightly attenuated cytotoxicity. However, the rapid increase in ROS production and the marked reduction of cell death with the antioxidants ebselen and N-acetylcysteine, indicate that ROS have a key role in glitazone cytotoxicity. Ciglitazone caused a dose-dependent and rapid loss (in minutes) of mitochondrial membrane potential in glioma cells. Therefore, mitochondria are a likely source of ROS and early targets of glitazone cytotoxicity. Our results highlight the potential of rosiglitazone and related compounds for the treatment of astrogliomas.