Using flow cytometry of acutely isolated cerebellar granule cell neurons, we have determined the effects of Al (III) on viability, membrane potential, intracellular calcium concentration and generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Al (III) killed granule cells in a time- and concentration-dependent fashion when monitored by use of the DNA-binding dye, propidium iodide. The threshold concentration was about 50 micromolar, and cell death at 100 micromolar was apparent after 30 min exposure and increased over time. Cell death was accompanied by cell swelling and a decrease in membrane potential, and was not dependent on external calcium concentration. While exposure to Al (III) was accompanied by an increase in ROS and an elevation of intracellular calcium concentration, calcium chelators and ROS scavengers did not reduce cell death. The action of Al (III) was not accompanied by activation of caspase-3 or an increase in annexin-V binding, both indicators of apoptosis. In the presence of intracellular O,O'-bis(2-aminophenyl)ethyleneglycol-N,N,N',N'-tetraacetic acid (BAPTA) and absence of extracellular calcium there was still a fluo-3 signal, which likely reflects an accumulation of intracellular Al (III). These observations suggest that the cell death is subsequent to intracellular accumulation of Al (III) and subsequent perturbation of cellular metabolism.