Neuronal systems for calcium homeostasis are crucial for neuronal development and function and may also contribute to selective neuronal vulnerability in adverse conditions such as exposure to excitatory amino acids or anoxia, and in neurodegenerative diseases. Previous work demonstrated the presence and differential distribution of calcium-binding proteins in the CNS. We now report that a subpopulation of neurons in dissociated cell cultures of embryonic rat hippocampus expresses calbindin-D28k (Mr 28,000 calcium-binding protein) immunoreactivity and that these neurons are relatively resistant to neurotoxicity induced by either glutamate or calcium ionophore. Direct comparisons of dynamic aspects of intracellular calcium levels and calbindin-D28k immunoreactivity in the same neurons revealed that calbindin-D28k-positive neurons were better able to reduce free intracellular calcium levels than calbindin-D28k-negative neurons. These findings indicate that the differential expression of calbindin-D28k in hippocampal neurons occurs early in development and may be one determinant of selective neuronal vulnerability to excitotoxic insults.