Brief substrate deprivation resulted in high mortality of superior cervical ganglion neurons in culture, assayed 2 hr later by trypan blue exclusion. Involvement of superoxide anions was indicated by several observations. Survival was increased significantly by prior treatment that induced cells to take up superoxide dismutase. During starvation, neurons reduced nitroblue tetrazolium to form the blue precipitate formazan, and the color change was blocked in neurons preloaded with superoxide dismutase. The incidence of staining was comparable to the mortality. In many cells, brief starvation caused the appearance of fluorescence due to oxidation of 2',7'-dichlorofluorescin to dichlorofluorescein, which indicates that oxidants were generated intracellularly. In some cells fluorescence was transient, as would be caused by membrane breakdown, and these cells were then shown to be dead. Superoxide generation caused by substrate deprivation may contribute importantly to cell damage in a variety of pathological conditions.