Although glutamate excitotoxicity has long been implicated in neuronal cell death associated with a variety of neurological disorders, the molecular mechanisms underlying this process are not yet fully understood. In part, this is due to the lack of relevant experimental cell systems recapitulating the in vivo neuronal environment, mainly neuronal-glial interactions. To explore these mechanisms, we have analyzed the cytotoxic effects of glutamate on mixed cultures of NT2/N neurons and NT2/A astrocytes derived from human NT2/D1 cells. In these cultures, the neurons were resistant to glutamate alone (up to 2 mM for 24-48 hr), but they responded to a simultaneous exposure to 0.5 mM glutamate and 6 hr of hypoxia. Neuronal cell death occurred during subsequent periods of reoxygenation (>30% within 24 hr). This was associated with a marked decrease of intracellular ATP, a significant increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) and downregulation of glutamate uptake by astrocytes. Thus, under energy failure and high levels of ROS production, only the neurons from these mixed cultures succumbed to glutamate neurotoxicity; the astrocytic cells remained unaffected by the treatment. Taken together, our data suggested that glutamate excitotoxicity might be due to the energy failure and oxidative stress affecting the properties of the NMDA glutamate receptors and causing impairment of glutamate transporters. Cells pretreated for 72 hr with 10 microg/ml of coenzyme Q(10) (functions both as a ROS scavenger and co-factor of mitochondrial electron transport), were protected, suggesting a useful role for coenzyme Q(10) in treatments of neurological diseases associated with glutamate excitotoxicity. A model of the complex interactions between neurons and astrocytes in regulating glutamate metabolism is presented.