Motoneuron disease including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may be due, at an early stage, to deficit in the extracellular clearance of the excitatory transmitter glutamate. A model of glutamate-mediated excitotoxic cell death based on pharmacological inhibition of its uptake was used to investigate how activation of neuronal nicotinic receptors by nicotine may protect motoneurons. Hypoglossal motoneurons (HMs) in neonatal rat brainstem slices were exposed to the glutamate uptake blocker DL-threo-β-benzyloxyaspartate (TBOA) that evoked large Ca 2+ transients time locked among nearby HMs, whose number fell by about 30% 4 h later. As nicotine or the gap junction blocker carbenoxolone suppressed bursting, we studied connexin 36 (Cx36), which constitutes gap junctions in neurons and found it largely expressed by HMs. Cx36 was downregulated when nicotine or carbenoxolone was co-applied with TBOA. Expression of Cx36 was preferentially observed in cytosolic rather than membrane fractions after nicotine and TBOA, suggesting protein redistribution with no change in synthesis. Nicotine raised the expression of heat shock protein 70 (Hsp70), a protective factor that binds the apoptotic-inducing factor (AIF) whose nuclear translocation is a cause of cell death. TBOA increased intracellular AIF, an effect blocked by nicotine. These results indicate that activation of neuronal nicotinic receptors is an early tool for protecting motoneurons from excitotoxicity and that this process is carried out via the combined decrease in Cx36 activity, overexpression of Hsp70 and fall in AIF translocation. Thus, retarding or inhibiting HM death may be experimentally achieved by targeting one of these processes leading to motoneuron death.