In cortical cultures, A beta protein destabilizes calcium homeostasis, but direct neurotoxicity of A beta is not observed. In hippocampal cultures, we and others find treatment with A beta protein decreases neuronal survival, but the mechanism of neurotoxicity is unknown. We have used low-density, serum-free cultures of hippocampal neurons to determine whether the neurotoxicity of A beta protein in vitro can be altered by voltage- or ligand-gated calcium channel antagonists or cyclic nucleotides. In these cultures, neither omega-conotoxin, nifedipine, verapamil, APV, nor MK-801 altered the survival of neurons exposed to synthetic A beta 1-40. The N-channel antagonist diltiazem decreased A beta 1-40 toxicity repeatedly, but slightly, perhaps by indirectly contributing to increased neuronal viability. Treatment of cultures with dibutyryl cAMP, 8-bromo cAMP, dibutyryl cGMP, and 8-bromo cGMP also failed to alter A beta toxicity. Thus, the toxicity of beta protein in low-density hippocampal cultures was not directly altered either by calcium channel blockers or by the addition of cyclic nucleotides.