Six chemicals, 2-halopropionic acids, thiophene, methylhalides, methylmercury, methylazoxymethanol (MAM) and trichlorfon (Fig. 1), that cause selective necrosis to the cerebellum, in particular to cerebellar granule cells, have been reviewed. The basis for the selective toxicity to these neurones is not fully understood, but mechanisms known to contribute to the neuronal cell death are discussed. All six compounds decrease cerebral glutathione (GSH), due to conjugation with the xenobiotic, thereby reducing cellular antioxidant status and making the cells more vulnerable to reactive oxygen species. 2-Halopropionic acids and methylmercury appear to also act via an excitotoxic mechanism leading to elevated intracellular Ca2+, increased reactive oxygen species and ultimately impaired mitochondrial function. In contrast, the methylhalides, trichlorfon and MAM all methylate DNA and inhibit O6-guanine-DNA methyltransferase (OGMT), an important DNA repair enzyme. We propose that a combination of reduced antioxidant status plus excitotoxicity or DNA damage is required to cause cerebellar neuronal cell death with these chemicals. The small size of cerebellar granule cells, the unique subunit composition of their N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, their low DNA repair ability, low levels of calcium-binding proteins and vulnerability during postnatal brain development and distribution of glutathione and its conjugating and metabolizing enzymes are all important factors in determining the sensitivity of cerebellar granule cells to toxic compounds.