The potential cytoprotective effects of estrogen in the brain are of special interest in aging, neurodegenerative diseases, exposure to toxins, and trauma. Estrogen effects on neurons have been widely explored, but less is known about estrogen effects on glia. Glial cells are primary targets of ammonia toxicity, which arises from liver disease or failure (such as from cirrhosis in alcoholics), urea cycle disorders, or inborn errors of metabolism. We examined the ability of estrogen to protect glial cells from ammonium chloride toxicity using an in vitro model system. C6-glioma cells in later passage have many astrocytic characteristics and provided a convenient and well established model system for this work. When C6-glioma cells were exposed to 15 mM ammonium chloride, we observed major cell death (only 32% cell survival relative to control) within 72 h. Pretreatment with 17beta-estradiol (10 microM) significantly protected C6-glioma cells from ammonia toxicity (99% cell survival relative to control). In addition to enhancing the viability of C6-glioma cells against ammonia challenge, estrogen pretreatment was also found to protect mitochondrial function as assayed using the MTT reduction assay. Mitochondrial function was reduced to 39% of control levels in ammonia-challenged cultures and was mostly protected by estrogen (72% of control levels). The findings are potentially relevant for the development of therapeutic strategies to protect glial cells against ammonia toxicity resulting from hepatic failure or other causes.