Glutamate binds to both excitatory neurotransmitter binding sites and a Cl(-)-dependent, quisqualate- and cystine-inhibited transport site on brain neurons. The neuroblastoma-primary retina hybrid cells (N18-RE-105) are susceptible to glutamate-induced cytotoxicity. The Cl(-)-dependent transport site to which glutamate and quisqualate (but not kainate or NMDA) bind has a higher affinity for cystine than for glutamate. Lowering cystine concentrations in the cell culture medium results in cytotoxicity similar to that induced by glutamate addition in its morphology, kinetics, and Ca2+ dependence. Glutamate-induced cytotoxicity is directly proportional to its ability to inhibit cystine uptake. Exposure to glutamate (or lowered cystine) causes a decrease in glutathione levels and an accumulation of intracellular peroxides. Like N18-RE-105 cells, primary rat hippocampal neurons (but not glia) in culture degenerate in medium with lowered cystine concentration. Thus, glutamate-induced cytotoxicity in N18-RE-105 cells is due to inhibition of cystine uptake, resulting in lowered glutathione levels leading to oxidative stress and cell death.