In our previous experiments, evidence of free radical formation has been demonstrated in gerbil brain after kainic acid (KA) administration. In the present study, the mechanisms involved in KA-induced free radical formation and subsequent cell degeneration were investigated using high density cortical neuron cultures. A free radical trapping agent, alpha-phenyl-N-tert- butyl-nitrone (PBN), as well as the combined action of superoxide dismutase and catalase attenuated KA neurotoxic effect. Calpain-induced xanthine oxidase (XO) activation may play an important role in KA excitotoxicity since calpain inhibitor I as well as allopurinol, a selective XO inhibitor, significantly protected the cortical neurons from KA-induced cell death. However, XO activation may not be the only source producing free radicals, other free radical generating systems such as nitric oxide synthase may also play a role in KA insult.