1-Methyl-4-phenylpyridinium ion (MPP+) is the product of the metabolic oxidation of 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) by monoamine oxidase (MAO). MPP+ is toxic to 3,4-dihydroxyphenylethylamine (dopamine, DA) neurons in explant cultures of rat embryonic midbrain. Addition of 2.5 microM MPP+ to the feeding medium for 6 days results in significant reduction of the DA levels in the cultures (to 19% of control) as well as in the uptake of [3H]DA (to 32% of control). When the cultures are treated with the MAO inhibitor deprenyl (10 microM) 24 h prior to and during exposure to MPP+, the DA neurons are protected from the toxicity of the drug. In the combined deprenyl plus MPP+ treatment, the levels of DA in the cultures remain at the control range and the [3H]DA uptake is reduced to only 73% of control. These results indicate that MAO is involved in the toxicity of MPP+ on DA neurons.