The factors contributing to selective motoneuron loss in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) remain undefined. To investigate whether calcium-binding proteins contribute to selective motoneuron vulnerability in ALS, we compared calbindin-D28K and parvalbumin immunoreactivity in motoneuron populations in human ALS, and in a ventral spinal cord hybrid cell line selectively vulnerable to the cytotoxic effects of ALS IgG. In human autopsy specimens, immunoreactive calbindin-D28k and parvalbumin were absent in motoneuron populations lost early in ALS (i.e., cortical and spinal motoneurons, lower cranial nerve motoneurons), while motoneurons damaged late or infrequently in the disease (i.e., Onuf's nucleus motoneurons, oculomotor, trochlear, and abducens nerve neurons) expressed markedly higher levels of immunoreactive calbindin-D28K and/or parvalbumin. Motoneuron-neuroblastoma VSC 4.1 hybrid cells lost immunoreactive calbindin-D28k and parvalbumin following dibutyryl-cyclic AMP-induced differentiation and were killed by IgG from ALS patients. Undifferentiated calbindin/parvalbumin-reactive VSC 4.1 cells were not killed, nor were other cell lines expressing high levels of calbindin-D28K and parvalbumin immunoreactivity (substantia nigra-neuroblastoma hybrid cells and N18TG2 neuroblastoma parent cells). These studies suggest that decreased calbindin-D28K and parvalbumin immunoreactivity may help explain the selective vulnerability of motoneurons in ALS.