Oxidative glutamate toxicity in HT22 murine hippocampal cells is a model for neuronal death by oxidative stress. We have investigated the role of proteases in HT22 cell oxidative glutamate toxicity. L-glutamate-induced toxicity was characterized by cell and nuclear shrinkage and chromatin condensation, yet occurred in the absence of either DNA fragmentation or mitochondrial cytochrome c release. Pretreatment with the selective caspase inhibitors either benzyloxycarbonyl-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethylketone (pan-caspase), N-acetyl-Leu-Glu-His-Asp-aldehyde (caspase 9) or N-acetyl-Ile-Glu-Thr-Asp-aldehyde (caspase 8), significantly increased L-glutamate-induced cell death with a corresponding increase in observed nuclear shrinkage and chromatin condensation. This enhancement of glutamate toxicity correlated with an increase in L-glutamate-dependent production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) as a result of caspase inhibition. Pretreating the cells with N-acetyl-L-cysteine prevented ROS production, cell shrinkage and cell death from L-glutamate as well as that associated with the presence of the pan-caspase inhibitor. In contrast, the caspase-3/-7 inhibitor N-acetyl-Asp-Glu-Val-Asp aldehyde was without significant effect. However, pretreating the cells with the calpain inhibitor N-acetyl-Leu-Leu-Nle-CHO, but not the cathepsin B inhibitor CA-074, prevented cell death. The cytotoxic role of calpains was confirmed further by: 1) cytotoxic dependency on intracellular Ca(2+) increase, 2) increased cleavage of the calpain substrate Suc-Leu-Leu-Val-Tyr-AMC and 3) immunoblot detection of the calpain-selective 145 kDa alpha-fodrin cleavage fragment. We conclude that oxidative L-glutamate toxicity in HT22 cells is mediated via calpain activation, whereas inhibition of caspases-8 and -9 may exacerbate L-glutamate-induced oxidative neuronal damage through increased oxidative stress.