The postsynaptic neuronal dendrite is selectively vulnerable to hypoxic-ischemic brain injury and glutamate receptor overactivation. We explored the glutamate receptor pharmacology and ionic basis of rapid, reversible alterations in dendritic shape which occur in cultured neurons exposed to glutamate. Dendrite morphology was assessed with the fluorescent membrane tracer, DiI, or immunofluorescence labeling of the somatodendritic protein, MAP2. Cortical cultures derived from 15-day-old mouse embryos underwent segmental dendritic beading when exposed to NMDA, AMPA, or kainate, but not to metabotropic glutamate receptor agonists. Varicosity formation in response to NMDA or kainate application was substantially attenuated in reduced sodium buffer (substituted with N-methyl-D-glucamine). Furthermore, veratridine-induced sodium entry mimicked excitotoxic alterations in dendrites and additionally caused varicosity formation in axons. Solutions deficient in chloride (substituted with Na methylsulfate) and antagonists of chloride-permeable GABA/glycine receptors reduced NMDA- or kainate-induced varicosity formation. An increase in dendrite volume was observed as varicosities formed, and varicosity formation was attenuated in sucrose-supplemented hypertonic media. Despite marked structural changes affecting virtually all neurons, dendrite shape returned to normal within 2 h of terminating glutamate receptor agonist application. Neurons exposed to kainate recovered more rapidly than those exposed to NMDA, and neurons exposed to NMDA in calcium-free buffer recovered more rapidly than cells treated with NMDA in normal buffer. While sodium, chloride, and water entry contribute to excitotoxic dendritic injury acutely, calcium entry through NMDA receptors results in lasting structural changes in damaged dendrites.