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The neurodegeneration induced by manganese has been attributed to its ability to undergo redox cycling, and catalysis of reactive oxygen species (ROS) formation, as with other transition metals. However, the characterization of manganese as a pro-oxidant is confounded by increasing evidence that the metal may scavenge superoxide anions and protect cells from oxidative damage. The current study was designed to address conflicting reports pertaining to the oxidative capacity of manganese. We found that the metal has distinctive redox dynamics in which the divalent reduced form, unlike iron, possessed no intrinsic oxidative capacity. The apparent ability of Mn2+ to promote the formation of ROS within a cortical mitochondrial-synaptosomal fraction was quenched by the depletion of contaminating nanomolar concentrations of trivalent metals. The addition of manganic ions at trace concentrations dose-dependently restored the oxidative capacity attributed to divalent manganese, whereas the presence of the ferric ion retarded the rate of ROS generation. This result was paralleled by the spectrophotometric demonstration that the kinetics of iron oxidation is accelerated by trivalent but not divalent manganese. The markedly different capacities of the lower and higher valence states of manganese to promote free-radical formation in cortical fractions and to modulate the process of iron oxidation may account for earlier contradictory reports of anti- and pro-oxidant properties of manganese.