The adrenal stress hormones glucocorticoids (GCs) impair the ability of hippocampal neurons to survive neurological insults, including hypoxia-ischemia and seizure. These insults are thought to be toxic via a cascade of excessive synaptic concentrations of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g. glutamate), activation of the NMDA receptor, and pathologic mobilization of cytosolic calcium post-synaptically. We tested whether GCs exacerbate these insults by exacerbating this 'NMDA cascade'. We sought a toxin which damaged independently of the NMDA cascade, and whose toxicity was enhanced by GCs. After testing a number of neurotoxins, we found that the antimetabolite 3-acetylpyridine (3AP) fit this requirement. We then tested if blockade of the NMDA receptor blocks the ability of GCs to enhance 3AP toxicity. Hippocampi were microinfused with 160 micrograms of 3AP. Elevating circulating GC concentrations to the range seen during major stressors for a week before and after microinfusion caused a significant increase in 3AP-induced damage (when compared to adrenalectomized rats kept GC-free for the same period). Infusing the NMDA receptor blocker APV with 3AP did not alter the toxicity in adrenalectomized rats. However, APV reduced 3AP-induced damage in GC-treated rats to levels seen in adrenalectomized rats. This suggests that GCs endanger hippocampal neurons by enhancing glutamatergic signals and/or enhancing vulnerability to such signals. As a possible explanation for this observation, GCs inhibit glucose uptake into hippocampal neurons, and numerous steps in the NMDA cascade are exacerbated when neuronal energy stores are diminished.