Domoic acid (Dom), a rigid analog of the excitotoxic amino acids, glutamate and kainic acid, is believed to be the mussel neurotoxin responsible for a recent food poisoning incident in Canada that killed some people and left others with memory impairment. Since the literature contains very little information pertaining to Dom excitotoxicity, we have systematically evaluated the neuroexcitatory properties of Dom in vitro (cultured hippocampal neurons) and its neurotoxic properties both in vitro (chick embryo retina) and in vivo (adult rat). In the in vitro experiments, the properties of Dom were compared with those of kainic acid, N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) and quisqualate, each of which is a prototypic agonist at a different subtype of glutamate receptor. Currents induced in hippocampal neurons by Dom and kainic acid were identical and displayed a linear current/voltage relationship (in contrast to NMDA currents) and were nondesensitizing (in contrast to quisqualate currents). Dom currents were not blocked by NMDA antagonists but were blocked by CNQX, an antagonist of non-NMDA receptors. In the chick embryo retina, Dom induced a lesion pattern having the same distinctive characteristics as a kainic acid lesion which differs from that induced by either NMDA or quisqualate, and the Dom lesion was blocked by CNQX but not by NMDA antagonists. Subcutaneous administration of Dom (2.5-3 mg/kg) to adult rats resulted in an acute seizure-brain damage syndrome almost identical to that induced in rats by KA (12 mg/kg) and having important features analogous to the neurotoxic syndrome observed in the human food poison victims.