Increased generation of neurotoxic lipid peroxidation products is proposed to contribute to the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Current antioxidant therapies are directed at limiting propagation of brain lipid peroxidation. Another approach would be to scavenge the reactive aldehyde products of lipid peroxidation. N(alpha)-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) and aminoguanidine (AG) react rapidly and irreversibly with 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal (HNE) in vitro, and both have been proposed as potential scavengers of HNE in biological systems. We have compared NAC, AG, and a series of congeners as scavengers of HNE and as neuroprotectants from HNE. Our results showed that while both NAC and AG had comparable chemical reactivity with HNE, only NAC and its congeners were able to block HNE-protein adduct formation in vitro and in neuronal cultures. Moreover, NAC and its congeners, but not AG, effectively protected brain mitochondrial respiration and neuronal microtubule structure from the toxic effects of HNE. We conclude that NAC and its congeners, but not AG, may act as neuroprotectants from HNE.