Amyloid beta protein (A beta) is a 40-43 amino acid peptide that is associated with plaques in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and is cytotoxic to cultured neurons. Using both primary central nervous system cultures and clonal cell lines, it is shown that a number of anti-oxidants protect cells from A beta toxicity, suggesting that at least one pathway to A beta cytotoxicity results in free radical damage. A beta causes increased levels of H2O2 and lipid peroxides to accumulate in cells. The H2O2-degrading enzyme catalase protects cells from A beta toxicity. Clonal cell lines selected for their resistance to A beta toxicity also become resistant to the cytolytic action of H2O2. In addition, A beta induces the activity of NF-kappa B, a transcription factor thought to be regulated by oxidative stress. Finally, A beta-induced H2O2 production and A beta toxicity are blocked by reagents that inhibit flavin oxidases, suggesting that A beta activates a member of this class of enzymes. These results show that the cytotoxic action of A beta on neurons results from free radical damage to susceptible cells.