Calbindin and the more recently identified protein calretinin are structurally related calcium-binding proteins having a broad distribution in the brain. Recent evidence supports a neuroprotective role for calbindin in regulating calcium homeostasis during periods of heightened Ca2+ influx. It is not known if calretinin might have a similar function. We investigated if calretinin-containing neurons have a survival advantage in rat neocortical cultures treated with a calcium ionophore or excitatory amino acids. Neuronal cultures were challenged with the calcium ionophore A23187 at different concentrations to produce a broad range of cell death. Cell loss was quantified for both the calretinin immunopositive and the calretinin immunonegative populations of neurons. We found that 3 h after exposure to 2 microM A23187 there was a 48% loss of the calretinin immunonegative population of neurons whereas the calretinin immunopositive set of neurons was reduced by only 18%. Calretinin positive neurons were still relatively spared after treatment with 3 microM A23187. The ionophore had no cytotoxic effect when calcium ions were removed from the extracellular medium. We also studied glutamate excitotoxicity by treating the neuronal cultures with the excitatory amino acids glutamate, N-methyl-D-aspartate or kainate for 5 min and examining survival three hours later. We found again that calretinin-containing neurons were relatively spared after exposure to the excitatory amino acids; at doses of N-methyl-D-aspartate and kainate that produced a 32-40% loss of calretinin immunonegative neurons, only 2-10% of calretinin immunopositive neurons died. Similar results were obtained for glutamate. These results demonstrate that neurons containing calretinin are better able to survive disturbances in calcium homeostasis than cells not containing this calcium-binding protein. The fact that this effect was observed with ionophore treatment, as well as excitatory amino acids, suggests that neither the density nor distribution of glutamate receptors on the different cell types was a factor in determining selective vulnerability. We hypothesize that the neuroprotective effect of calretinin is due to the buffering capacities of the protein in a manner analogous to that suggested for calbindin.