We have investigated the effects of pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide with 38 residues (PACAP38) on glutamate-induced neuronal cell death in rat-cultured cortical neurons. The rat-cultured neurons were obtained from E17 day-old embryos and cultured in a chemically defined medium without serum for 10 days, after which more than 95% of the cells were stained by a specific antibody against MAP-2, a specific marker for neurons. The number of viable neurons was identified by the mitochondrial conversion of 3-[4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) to formazan, which was detected by the associated change in optical density at 570 nm. Glutamate-induced neuronal cell death was suppressed by PACAP38 at concentrations as low as 10(-13) M, and at 10(-11) M maximally suppressed half of the amount of glutamate-induced cell death seen in a control situation (no PACAP38). The dose-response curve was bell-shaped. Dibutyryl cAMP (dbcAMP) also increased the number of neurons that were protected from damage with a bell-shaped dose-response curve suggesting that PACAP exerts its neuroprotective effect through the activation of a cAMP signal transduction system. However, cAMP accumulation in the media of neurons was stimulated by PACAP38 at concentrations as low as 10(-11) M, a much higher concentration than the minimal effective dose of PACAP38 required for protection against glutamate-induced neuronal cell death. Among the three neuropeptides of PACAP38, arginine vasopressin (AVP) and C-type natriuretic peptide (CNP), only PACAP38 exhibited a neurotrophic effect in the glutamate-induced neuronal cell death at the indicated concentrations. These data indicate that PACAP38 is one of the more important neuroprotective factors. The kind of intracellular signal transduction system involved in the neuroprotective effect of PACAP38 still remains to be established.