Post-menopausal estrogen replacement therapy is associated with a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer's disease and has been reported to improve cognitive functioning in several small clinical trials. The present study evaluates the dependence of estrogenic neuroprotection on the presence of estrogen receptors using the murine neuronal cell line, HT-22, exposed to the neurotoxic beta-amyloid peptide. These cells lack functional estrogen receptors. The amyloid peptide killed 50-60% of these cells and concurrent treatment with either of three estratrienes, beta-estradiol, alpha-estradiol, or estratrien-3-ol, resulted in a dose-dependent protection. The potency of this estrogen neuroprotection was dependent on the presence of glutathione in the culture media. The presence of reduced glutathione in the media increases the neuroprotective potency of estrogens by an average of 400-fold. These results demonstrate that a nuclear estrogen receptor is not necessary for the neuroprotective actions of estrogens; however, the presence of an appropriate antioxidant in the extracellular milieu is needed for estratriene neuroprotection at physiologically and pharmacologically relevant doses. These data suggest the possibility of combined estrogen-antioxidant therapy for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.