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Glutathione is part of the system of cellular defenses against lipid peroxidation and other free radical-mediated damage. An established in vitro trauma model was utilized to evaluate whether glutathione is a factor in the survival of mammalian spinal cord neurons following physical injury. Cultured murine spinal neurons were subjected to a standard lesion: transection of a primary dendrite 100 u,m from the perikaryon. Prior reduction of glutathione with ethacrynic acid or buthionine sulfoximine caused a dose-dependent decrease in neuronal survival 24 hours after dendrotomy. Prior glutathione augmentation with -γ-glutamylcysteine or L-2-oxo-4-thiazolidine carboxylic acid significantly increased survival, but N-acetyl-cysteine was not protective. Gamma glutamylcysteine effected the most rapid increase in glutathione (peak at 10 min), and survival was 72% ± 10 when 0.2 mM γ-glutamylcysteine was added immediately after dendrotomy compared with 38% ± 4 in the control group (p < 0.0001). These results indicate that the level of glutathione is a factor in spinal cord neuron survival after physical trauma, and that glutathione augmentation may be an effective acute phase spinal cord injury (SCI) intervention strategy.