In cultured rat cerebellar granule cells, glutamate or N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) activation of the NMDA receptor caused a sustained increase in cytosolic Ca(2+) levels ([Ca(2+)](i)), reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation, and cell death (respective EC(50) values for glutamate were 12, 30, and 38 microM) but no increase in caspase-3 activity. Removal of extracellular Ca(2+) blocked all three glutamate-induced effects, whereas pretreatment with an ROS scavenger inhibited glutamate-induced cell death but had no effect on the [Ca(2+)](i) increase. This indicates that glutamate-induced cell death is attributable to [Ca(2+)](i) increase and ROS generation, and the [Ca(2+)](i) increase precedes ROS generation. Apoptotic cell death was not seen until 24 h after exposure of cells to glutamate. S-nitrosoglutathione abolished glutamate-induced ROS generation and cell death, and only a transient [Ca(2+)](i) increase was seen; similar results were observed with another nitric oxide (NO) donor, S-nitroso-N-acetylpenicillamine, but not with glutathione, which suggests that the effects were caused by NO. The transient [Ca(2+)](i) increase and the abolishment of ROS generation induced by glutamate and S-nitrosoglutathione were still seen in the presence of an ROS scavenger. Glial cells, which were present in the cultures used, showed no [Ca(2+)](i) increase in the presence of glutamate, and glutamate-induced granule cell death was independent of the percentage of glial cells. In conclusion, NO donors protect cultured cerebellar granule cells from glutamate-induced cell death, which is mediated by ROS generated by a sustained [Ca(2+)](i) increase, and glial cells provide negligible protection against glutamate-induced excitotoxicity.