The role of the putative sigma receptor in mediating neuroprotection against glutamate-induced neuronal injury was examined in mature cultured rat cortical neurons. With the exception of the selective sigma 1 ligand (+)-3-PPP, all of the sigma ligands tested were neuroprotective, preventing glutamate-induced morphological changes and increases in LDH release. Their rank order of neuroprotective potency (and EC50 values) was as follows: (+)-SKF 10,047 (0.81 microM) > (+)- cyclazocine (2.3 microM) > dextromethorphan (3.1 microM) = haloperidol (3.7 microM) > (+)-pentazocine (8.5 microM) > DTG (42.7 microM) = carbetapentane (46.3 microM). When corrected for relative sigma versus PCP binding affinity, it appears that a positive correlation exists between neuroprotective potency and sigma 1 site affinity. However, there does not appear to be a significant correlation between neuroprotective potency and the sigma 2 site. Critically, none of the sigma ligands were neurotoxic when tested alone at concentrations at least 5-30 times their respective neuroprotective EC50 values. Results from preliminary experiments with the selective sigma 1 ligand (+)-pentazocine indicated that sigma-mediated neuroprotection may involve the buffering of glutamate-induced calcium flux. Collectively, the results of these in vitro experiments demonstrate that sigma ligands are neuroprotective and therefore deserve further exploration as potential therapeutic agents in in vivo models of CNS injury and neurodegenerative disorders.