Previously, this laboratory demonstrated that the development of serotonin (5-HT) neurons and S100B-immunopositive glia proximal to these neurons is impaired in the offspring of ethanol-fed rats. However, maternal treatment with a 5-HT(1A) agonist, e.g., buspirone or ipsapirone, between gestational days 13 and 20 prevented most of the ethanol-associated changes to developing 5-HT neurons and S100B-immunopositive glia in offspring. The present in vitro studies examined the hypothesis that the protective effects of a 5-HT(1A) agonist on ethanol-exposed, developing 5-HT neurons are mediated in part by astrocyte-produced factors such as S100B. Primary cultures of fetal 5-HT neurons were maintained in conditioned medium (CM) that was obtained from ethanol- and buspirone-treated astrocytes. In order to assess the potential contribution of S100B to the protective effects of buspirone, a mouse monoclonal antibody to S100B was added to the CM to block the biological effects of this protein. These studies demonstrated that CM, obtained from ethanol-treated astrocytes, was unable to support normal development of 5-HT neurons; there was a significant reduction in the number of 5-HT neurons/well. However, CM that was obtained from astrocytes that were co-treated with buspirone and ethanol prevented the ethanol-associated reduction, and the protective effects of buspirone required S100B. We also investigated whether exogenous S100B could protect 5-HT neurons from damage caused by direct exposure to ethanol. Direct exposure of fetal brainstem neurons to ethanol in chemically-defined medium was associated with a significant reduction in the number of 5-HT immunopositive neurons/well. However, exogenous S100B protected 5-HT neurons from the ethanol-associated reduction. Our observations suggest that the protective effects of buspirone on ethanol-exposed, developing 5-HT neurons are mediated in part by the astrocyte-produced factor S100B.