During cortical development, N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are highly involved in neuronal maturation and synapse establishment. In order to determine whether a link exists between NMDA receptors-mediated excitotoxicity and radiation-induced cell death, we evaluated radiation-induced cell death in vitro and in vivo in maturing neurons during the fetal period. Cell death induction was assessed by TUNEL, caspase-3 activity and DNA ladder assays, with or without the administration of dizocilpine (MK-801), a non-competitive NMDA receptor antagonist which blocks neuronal Ca2+ influx. To investigate the possible involvement of Ca2+-dependent enzyme activation, known to occur at high Ca2+ concentrations, we examined the protective effect of a calpain inhibitor on cell death induced by radiation. Doses ranging from 0.2 to 0.6Gy of X-rays elicited a clear apoptotic response that was prevented by the injection of dizocilpine (MK-801) or calpain inhibitor. These data demon¬strate the involvement of NMDA receptors in radiation-induced neuronal death by the activation of downstream effectors, including calpain-related pathways. An increased apoptotic process elicited by radiation, occurring independently of the normal developmental scheme, may eliminate post-mitotic but immature neuronal cells and deeply impair the establishment of the neuronal network, which in the case of cortical develop¬ment is critical for cognitive capacities.