Mitochondrial uptake of Ca(2+) has recently been found to play an important role in glutamate-induced neurotoxicity (GNT) as well as in the activation of Ca(2+)-dependent molecules, such as calmodulin and neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS), in the cytoplasm. Prolonged exposure to glutamate injures motor neurons predominantly through the activation of Ca(2+)/calmodulin-nNOS, as previously reported, and is, in part, associated with the pathogenesis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In the present study, we investigated how mitochondrial uptake of Ca(2+) is involved in GNT in spinal motor neurons. Acute excitotoxicity induced by exposure to 0.5 mM glutamate for 5 min was found in both motor and nonmotor neurons in cultured spinal cords from rat embryos and was dependent on extracellular Ca(2+) and on N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor activation. Mitochondrial uncouplers markedly blocked acute excitotoxicity, and membrane-permeable superoxide dismutase mimics attenuated acute excitotoxicity induced by glutamate and NMDA but not by alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionate (AMPA) or kainate. Fluorimetric analysis showed that mitochondrial Ca(2+) was elevated promptly with subsequent accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the mitochondria. An NMDA receptor antagonist and a mitochondrial uncoupler eliminated the increase in fluorescence of mitochondrial Ca(2+) and ROS indicators. These data indicate that acute excitotoxicity in spinal neurons is mediated by mitochondrial Ca(2+) overload and ROS generation through the activation of NMDA receptors. This mechanism is different from that of chronic GNT.