A three-dimensional cell culture system was used as a model to study the influence of low levels of mercury in the developing brain. Aggregating cell cultures of fetal rat telencephalon were treated for 10 days either during an early developmental period (i.e., between days 5 and 15 in vitro) or during a phase of advanced maturation (i.e., between days 25 and 35) with mercury. An inorganic (HgCl2) and an organic mercury compound (monomethylmercury chloride, MeHgCl) were examined. By monitoring changes in cell type-specific enzymes activities, the concentration-dependent toxicity of the compounds was determined. In immature cultures, a general cytotoxicity was observed at 10(-6) M for both mercury compounds. In these cultures, HgCl2 appeared somewhat more toxic than MeHgCl. However, no appreciable demethylation of MeHgCl could be detected, indicating similar toxic potencies for both mercury compounds. In highly differentiated cultures, by contrast, MeHgCl exhibited a higher toxic potency than HgCl2. In addition, at 10(-6) M, MeHgCl showed pronounced neuron-specific toxicity. Below the cytotoxic concentrations, distinct glia-specific reactions could be observed with both mercury compounds. An increase in the immunoreactivity for glial fibrillary acidic protein, typical for gliosis, could be observed at concentrations between 10(-9) M and 10(-7) M in immature cultures, and between 10(-8) M and 3 x 10(-5) M in highly differentiated cultures. A conspicuous increase in the number and clustering of GSI-B4 lectin-binding cells, indicating a microglial response, was found at concentrations between 10(-10) M and 10(-7) M. These development-dependent and cell type-specific effects may reflect the pathogenic potential of long-term exposure to subclinical doses of mercury.