Minocycline, a semisynthetic tetracycline derivative, protects brain against global and focal ischemia in rodents. We examined whether minocycline reduces excitotoxicity in primary neuronal cultures. Minocycline (0.02 microm) significantly increased neuronal survival in mixed spinal cord (SC) cultures treated with 500 microm glutamate or 100 microm kainate for 24 hr. Treatment with these excitotoxins induced a dose-dependent proliferation of microglia that was associated with increased release of interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) and was followed by increased lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) release. The excitotoxicity was enhanced when microglial cells were cultured on top of SC cultures. Minocycline prevented excitotoxin-induced microglial proliferation and the increased release of nitric oxide (NO) metabolites and IL-1beta. Excitotoxins induced microglial proliferation and increased the release of NO metabolites and IL-1beta also in pure microglia cultures, and these responses were inhibited by minocycline. In both SC and pure microglia cultures, excitotoxins activated p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p38 MAPK) exclusively in microglia. Minocycline inhibited p38 MAPK activation in SC cultures, and treatment with SB203580, a p38 MAPK inhibitor, but not with PD98059, a p44/42 MAPK inhibitor, increased neuronal survival. In pure microglia cultures, glutamate induced transient activation of p38 MAPK, and this was inhibited by minocycline. These findings indicate that the proliferation and activation of microglia contributes to excitotoxicity, which is inhibited by minocycline, an antibiotic used in severe human infections.