Transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) functions as a polymodal nociceptor and is activated by several vanilloids, including capsaicin, protons and heat. Although TRPV1 channels are widely distributed in the brain, their roles remain unclear. Here, we investigated the roles of TRPV1 in cytotoxic processes using TRPV1-expressing cultured rat cortical neurons. Capsaicin induced severe neuronal death with apoptotic features, which was completely inhibited by the TRPV1 antagonist capsazepine and was dependent on extracellular Ca(2+) influx. Interestingly, nifedipine, a specific L-type Ca(2+) channel blocker, attenuated capsaicin cytotoxicity, even when applied 2-4 h after the capsaicin. ERK inhibitor PD98059 and several antioxidants, but not the JNK and p38 inhibitors, attenuated capsaicin cytotoxicity. Together, these data indicate that TRPV1 activation triggers apoptotic cell death of rat cortical cultures via L-type Ca(2+) channel opening, Ca(2+) influx, ERK phosphorylation, and reactive oxygen species production.