The present study provides evidence that the adult mammalian retina is highly sensitive to the excitotoxic action of NMDA. In particular, we have investigated the effects of a single intravitreal injection of different doses of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) (2-200 nmoles) on the adult rat retina. Morphological evaluation of transverse sections of retinae demonstrated a dose-dependent loss of cells in the ganglion cell layer (GCL) and a reduction in the thickness of the inner plexiform layer. No obvious alterations were noted in the more distal retinal layers. Quantitative analyses of Nissl-stained whole-mounted retinae revealed that administration of 20 nmoles of NMDA resulted in a 70% loss of cells with a soma diameter greater than 8 microns (presumed retinal ganglion cells); a 20% loss of cells with a soma diameter smaller than 8 microns (presumed displaced amacrine cells) was also observed. In addition, NMDA produced a dose-dependent decrease of retinal choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) activity, suggesting that NMDA affects cholinergic amacrine cells as well. MK-801, a non-competitive NMDA antagonist, completely prevented the NMDA-induced loss of cells in the GCL and blocked, in a dose-dependent manner, the NMDA-induced decrease of ChAT activity. The excitotoxic action of NMDA observed in these experiments is thus likely mediated through the NMDA receptor subtype. This "in vivo" model may be utilized to identify potential drugs that antagonize or limit the deleterious effects consequent to NMDA receptor overstimulation in the central nervous system.