We have studied the influence of class I metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) on excitotoxic neuronal degeneration in cultured murine cortical neurons grown on a monolayer of astrocytes. These cultures expressed high levels of mGluR5 mRNA, which were comparable to those found in RNA extracts from cerebral cortex. Cortical neurons in mixed cultures were heavily stained with antibodies raised against mGluR5 and were also stained--albeit to a much lower extent--with mGluR1a but not with mGluR1b or c antibodies. Preferential agonists of class I mGluRs, such as quisqualate, 3,5-dihydroxyphenylglycine (DHPG), and trans-azetidine-2,4-dicarboxylic acid (t-ADA), as well as the mixed mGluR agonist, 1S,3R-1-aminocyclopentane-1,3-dicarboxylic acid (1S,3R-ACPD) all stimulated PPI hydrolysis in cultured cortical cells. The potency of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) in inducing neuronal degeneration was substantially enhanced when the drug was coincubated with quisqualate, DHPG or t-ADA during a 10-min pulse (paradigm of "fast" toxicity). None of the mGluR agonists influenced neuronal viability by itself. The amplification of NMDA toxicity by quisqualate or DHPG was attenuated by a series of protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitors, suggesting that class I mGluRs operate, at least in part, through activation of PKC. Quisqualate and, in particular, DHPG enhanced excitoxic neuronal degeneration even when applied after the toxic pulse with NMDA. This action is likely to occur early in the maturation of excitotoxic damage, because the functional activity of class I mGluRs was substantially reduced at 2 or 3 hr after the NMDA pulse. These results suggest that activation of class I mGluRs enhances NMDA-receptor mediated neuronal toxicity and encourage the search for selective antagonists for the experimental therapy of acute or chronic neurodegenerative diseases.