Exposure to low level noise prior to a high level exposure reduces noise-induced hearing loss in mammals. This phenomenon is known as sound conditioning or 'toughening'. Reactive oxygen intermediates have been implicated in noise-induced cochlear damage. To evaluate if in situ antioxidant processes may play a role in the toughening phenomenon initiated by low level noise exposure we analyzed glutathione reductase, gamma-glutamyl cysteine synthetase, and catalase in stria vascularis and organ of Corti fractions from cochleae of chinchillas exposed to a sound conditioning paradigm. Chinchillas were either (A) kept in quiet cages (control), (B) exposed to conditioning noise of a 0.5 kHz octave band (90 dB for 6 h/day for 10 days), (C) exposed to high level noise (105 dB for 4 h) or (D) exposed to conditioning noise (B) followed by exposure to the higher level noise (C). Each of the noise exposure conditions (B, C, D) induced changes in the levels of these three antioxidant enzymes. The enzyme-specific activity data for the four subject groups support the following two hypotheses. (1) Changes in glutathione reductase, gamma-glutamyl cysteine synthetase, and catalase play a role in attenuating hearing loss associated with sound conditioning followed by high level noise. (2) Hair cells in the organ of Corti are protected from noise-induced damage by increasing stria vascularis levels of catalase, a hydrogen peroxide scavenging enzyme, and of enzymes involved in maintaining glutathione in the reduced state. The model formulated by these hypotheses suggests that agents that protect or augment the glutathione system in the cochlea may be protective against noise-induced hearing loss.