Humans are exposed to aluminum from environmental sources and therapeutic treatments. However, aluminum is neurotoxic and is considered a possible etiologic factor in Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders. The molecular mechanism of aluminum neurotoxicity is not understood. We tested the effects of aluminum on the glutamate-nitric oxide-cyclic GMP pathway in cultured neurons. Neurons were exposed to 50 μM aluminum in culture medium for short-term (4 h) or long-term (8-14 days) periods, or rats were prenatally exposed, i.e., 3.7% aluminum sulfate in the drinking water, during gestation. Chronic (but not short-term) exposure of neurons to aluminum decreased glutamate-induced activation of nitric oxide synthase by 38% and the formation of cyclic GMP by 77%. The formation of cyclic GMP induced by the nitric oxide-generating agent S-nitroso-N-acetylpenicillamine was reduced by 33%. In neurons from rats prenatally exposed to aluminum but not exposed to it during culture, glutamate-induced formation of cyclic GMP was inhibited by 81%, and activation of nitric oxide synthase was decreased by 85%. The formation of cyclic GMP induced by S-nitroso-N-acetylpenicillamine was not affected. These results indicate that chronic exposure to aluminum impairs glutamate-induced activation of nitric oxide synthase and nitric oxide-induced activation of guanylate cyclase. Impairment of the glutamate-nitric oxide-cyclic GMP pathway in neurons may contribute to aluminum neurotoxicity.