In many cell lines, glutamate cytotoxicity is known to be medicated by an inhibition of cystine transport. Because glutamate and cystine share the same transporter, elevated levels of extracellular glutamate competitively inhibit cystine transport leading to depletion of intracellular glutathione. A glutathione-depleted state impairs cellular antioxidant defenses resulting in oxidative stress. It was therefore of interest to investigate whether proglutathione agents, e.g., N-acetylcysteine and lipoic acid, are able to protect against glutamate cytotoxicity. Both lipoic acid (100 microM-1 mM) and N-acetylcysteine (100 microM-1 mM) completely protected C6 cells from the glutamate-induced cell death. Both agents facilitate extracellular supply of cysteine, the reduced form of cystine, that is transported into the cell by a glutamate-insensitive transport mechanism. Protection by lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine corresponded with a sparing effect on cellular glutathione, which is usually depleted after glutamate treatment. In the presence of L-buthionine-(S,R)-sulfoximine, a gamma-glutamylcysteine synthetase inhibitor, low doses (< 100 microM) of lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine did not protect cells against glutamate-induced cytotoxicity. At higher concentrations (> 500 microM), however, both lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine provided partial protection against glutamate cytotoxicity even in glutathione synthesis-arrested cells. These results indicate that at low concentrations the primary mechanism of protection by the thiol antioxidants was mediated by their proglutathione property rather than direct scavenging of reactive oxygen. At higher concentrations (> 500 microM), a GSH-independent direct antioxidant effect of lipoic and N-acetylcysteine was observed. Dichlorofluorescin fluorescence, a measure of intracellular peroxides, increased sixfold after glutamate treatment of C6 cells. Lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine treatment significantly lowered glutamate-induced dichlorofluorescin fluorescence compared with that of controls. Interestingly, alpha-tocopherol (50 microM) also suppressed glutamate-induced dichlorofluorescin fluorescence, indicating the peroxides detected by dichlorofluorescin were likely lipid hydroperoxides. Both thiol antioxidants, particularly lipoic acid, appear to have remarkable therapeutic potential in protecting against neurological injuries involving glutamate and oxidative stress.