The mechanism of delayed neurotoxicity, triggered by glutamate, was studied in 7-8-day-old primary cultures of rat cerebellar granule cells. Treatment of cultures for 15 min with 50 microM glutamate in Mg2+ -free medium, followed by removal of the excitoxin, resulted in neuronal death, which started to appear 2-3 hr after the termination of glutamate treatment. The number of dead neurons increased gradually in the next few hours and 80-85% of neurons were found dead 24 hr later. Antagonists of N-methyl-D-aspartate-sensitive glutamate receptors (phencyclidine) or 1.2 mM MgCl2, but not the antagonist of N-methyl-D-asparatate-insensitive glutamate receptors (6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione), abolished the neurotoxic effect of kainate. Development of glutamate-induced neuronal death depends strongly on Ca2+. Removal of extracellular Ca2+ (with 1mM ethyleneglycol-bis-(beta-aminoethyl ether)-N,N,N',N'-tetraacetic acid) immediately after the termination of glutamate exposure and before the appearance of the early signs of neuronal death (post-glutamate period) dramatically reduced neuronal degeneration. Neurotoxic concentrations of glutamate induced sustained increase of 45Ca2+ uptake in the post-glutamate period. The delayed increase of 45Ca2+ uptake, as well as the delayed neurotoxicity, were not affected by post-glutamate treatment with phencyclidine, dibenzocyclohepteneimine; DL-2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate, or MgCl2 or with voltage-dependent Ca2+ channel blockers (nitrendipine, verapamil, diltiazem). Neurotoxic concentrations of glutamate also induced a delayed sustained increase of [3H]phorbol-12,13-dibutyrate binding, reflecting an increased translocation of protein kinase C (PKC) from cytosol to the cell membrane during the post-glutamate period. Pretreatment of neurons with the ganglioside GT1b (trisialosylgangliotetraglycosylceramide), followed by removal of free GT1b from the incubation medium, prevented PKC translocation, the sustained increase of 45Ca2+ uptake in the post-glutamate period, and the delayed neuronal death. We suggest that the sustained activation and translocation of PKC primed by glutamate receptor stimulation may be the triggering event causing the protracted increase of neuronal Ca2+ influx. This influx is insensitive to voltage-dependent Ca2+ channel blockers and glutamate receptor antagonists. It appears that this delayed increase of Ca2+ influx may be important in causing neuronal death.