Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by selective motor neuron death. The exact mechanism responsible for this selectivity is not clear, although it is known that motor neurons are very sensitive to excitotoxicity. This high sensitivity is due to a high density of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid (AMPA) receptors on their surface and to a limited Ca(2+) buffering capacity. Ca(2+) can enter the cell upon stimulation through voltage-operated Ca(2+) channels and through the Ca(2+)-permeable portion of AMPA receptors. How this Ca(2+) kills motor neurons is incompletely understood. In the present study, we report that kainate (KA)-induced motor neuron death is purely mediated through Ca(2+) entering motor neurons through Ca(2+)-permeable AMPA receptors and that voltage-operated Ca(2+) channels play no significant role. In contrast to what has been observed in other neuronal models or after N-methyl-D-aspartate stimulation, NO synthase inhibition and a number of antioxidants did not protect motor neurons from KA-induced death. Only PD150606, derived from alpha-mercaptoacrylic acid and considered as a selective calpain antagonist, inhibited dose-dependently the KA-induced motor neuron death. However, other calmodulin and calpain inhibitors were not effective. At least part of the inhibitory effect of PD150606 is due to an irreversible inhibition of the Ca(2+) influx through the Ca(2+)-permeable AMPA receptor. These results demonstrate the interesting property of PD150606 to interfere with excitotoxicity-dependent motor neuron death and show that PD150606 is not an exclusive calpain/calmodulin antagonist.