Glutamate excitotoxicity is a common pathology to blinding ischemic retinopathies, such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and central retinal vein or artery occlusion. The development of an effective interventional modality to glutamate excitotoxicity is hence important to preventing blindness. Herein we showed that α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH) time-dependently protected against glutamate-induced cell death and tissue damage in an improved embryonic chicken retinal explant culture system. α-MSH down-regulated microRNA-194 (miR-194) expression during the glutamate excitotoxicity in the retinal explants. Furthermore, pharmacological antagonists to melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R) and lentivirus-mediated overexpression of pre-miR-194 abrogated the suppressing effects of α-MSH on glutamate-induced activities of caspase 3 or 7, the ultimate enzymes for glutamate-induced cell death. These results suggest that the protective effects of α-MSH may be due to the MC4R mediated-down-regulation of miR-194 during the glutamate-induced excitotoxicity. Finally, α-MSH attenuated cell death and recovered visual functions in glutamate-stimulated post-hatch chick retinas. These results demonstrate the previously undescribed protective effects of α-MSH against glutamate-induced excitotoxic cell death in the cone-dominated retina both in vitro and in vivo, and indicate a novel molecular mechanism linking MC4R-mediated signaling to miR-194.