Recent evidence has linked excitotoxicity with the generation of free radicals. We examined whether free radical spin traps can attenuate excitotoxic lesions in vivo. Pretreatment with N-tert-butyl-alpha-(2-sulfophenyl)-nitrone (S-PBN) significantly attenuated striatal excitotoxic lesions in rats produced by N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA), kainic acid, and alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-isoxazole-4-propionic acid (AMPA). In a similar manner, striatal lesions produced by 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium (MPP+), malonate, and 3-acetylpyridine were significantly attenuated by either S-PBN or alpha-phenyl-N-tert-butylnitrone (PBN) treatment. Administration of S-PBN in combination with the NMDA antagonist MK-801 produced additive effects against malonate and 3-acetylpyridine toxicity. Malonate injections resulted in increased production of hydroxyl free radicals (.OH) as assessed by the conversion of salicylate to 2,3- and 2,5-dihydroxybenzoic acid (DHBA). This increase was significantly attenuated by S-PBN, consistent with a free radical scavenging effect. S-PBN had no effects on malonate-induced ATP depletions and had no significant effect on spontaneous striatal electrophysiologic activity. These results provide the first direct in vivo evidence for the involvement of free radicals in excitotoxicity and suggest that antioxidants may be useful in treating neurologic illnesses in which excitotoxic mechanisms have been implicated.