Tirilazad mesylate and related compounds, known as lazaroids, are recognized as inhibitors of membrane lipid peroxidation that also act as free radical scavengers. These compounds have demonstrated protective activity in animal models of traumatic head injury and cerebral ischemia. In this study we used an in vitro cell model to investigate the mechanism by which tirilazed mesylate and related antioxidants delay or prevent the lethal cell injury provoked by chemically induced energy depletion. When the cultured human astrocytoma cell line UC-11MG was treated with the metabolic inhibitor sodium iodoacetate for 4 hr, the cells exhibited signs of irreversible cell injury, including alterations in plasma membrane morphology, the breakdown of membrane phospholipids (release of arachidonic acid into the extracellular medium) and the loss of viability as indicated by the leakage of cytoplasmic components. A large quantity of reactive oxygen species (ROS) was detected in the injured cells by a dichlorofluorescin assay. Increases in early lipid peroxidation products were detected as elevated hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acids in the membrane phospholipds, which indicated that the membrane lipids were oxidatively damaged. The addition of tirilazad mesylate, a troloxamine derivative or the common phenolic antioxidant nordihydroguaiaretic acid effectively prevented the increases in ROS, attenuated the elevation of hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acids, and delayed irreversible cell injury. We propose that the destruction of crucial cell constituents in the lipophilic compartments by ROS is one of the major causes of lethal cell injury. The cyytoprotective action of the lazaroids in related, as least in part, to their ability to block the formation of ROS and to arrest the secondary cell injury.