beta-Amyloid is a 39- to 43-amino-acid neurotoxic peptide that aggregates to form the core of Alzheimer disease-associated senile (amyloid) plaques. No satisfactory hypothesis has yet been proposed to explain the mechanism of beta-amyloid aggregation and toxicity. We present mass spectrometric and electron paramagnetic resonance spin trapping evidence that beta-amyloid, in aqueous solution, fragments and generates free radical peptides. beta-Amyloid fragments, at concentrations that previously have been shown to be neurotoxic to cultured neurons, can inactivate oxidation-sensitive glutamine synthetase and creatine kinase enzymes. Also, salicylate hydroxylation assays indicate that reactive oxygen species are generated by the beta-amyloid-(25-35) fragment during cell-free incubation. These results are formulated into a free radical-based unifying hypothesis for neurotoxicity of beta-amyloid and are discussed with reference to membrane molecular alterations in Alzheimer disease.