Pigment epithelium-derived factor (PEDF) is a survival factor for cerebellar granule cells in culture. In the present study, we have investigated the ability of a recombinant form of PEDF (rPEDF) to protect against glutamate neurotoxicity. When rPEDF was added to cerebellar granule cell cultures 30 min before addition of 100 microM glutamate, glutamate-induced neuronal death was significantly reduced. The protective effect of rPEDF was dose-dependent in the range from 0.023 to 7.0 nM (1-500 ng/ml), with a half-maximal dose of 0.47 nM. An antibody to rPEDF blocked this protective effect. Measurement of intraneuronal free calcium levels demonstrated that rPEDF raised the basal calcium content. However, after the elevation of intracellular calcium in response to administration of glutamate, rPEDF reduced the plateau level seen in the presence of glutamate. These data show that PEDF can protect neurons against glutamate-induced neurotoxicity, possibly via a calcium-related pathway. The finding that only 30 min of preincubation is required for the neuroprotective effect, significantly faster than other known neurotrophic factors, suggests that PEDF may be useful clinically as a neuroprotective agent in the CNS.