Neonatal rat cardiac myocytes were treated with cytokines, with or without the nitric oxide synthase (NOS) inhibitors N-monomethyl-L-arginine (LNMMA) and N-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (LNAME), and systolic and diastolic calcium levels were measured by fluorescence spectrophotometry and confocal microscopy. Time-dependent changes following interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) treatment revealed a continuing increase in intracellular calcium, which was reduced with LNMMA, but not with LNAME. Increases in calcium also occurred with interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), but not to the extent seen with IFN-gamma. Increased cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) was involved in the results described with short-term (2 hr) TNF-alpha and long-term (18 hr) IFN-gamma treatments. Short-term exposure to IFN-gamma produced an increase in cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) and also an initial increase in the myocyte-bearing rate, with calcium levels either (i) subsequently returning to control levels while maintaining a fast beating rate or (ii), retaining a high systolic calcium level, but beating at control rates. Treatment with both IL-1beta and IFN-gamma stabilized the beating rate of the cells on some occasions. Shortening of myocytes increased with isoproterenol and following treatment with IFN-gamma, while isoproterenol stimulation of IFN-gamma-treated cells revealed increased contractile activity after short, but not long, treatment. LNMMA, but not reduced the increased contractile response with short-term IFN-gamma treatment. Our findings suggest that TNF-alpha acts via a cGMP-dependent pathway, whereas the actions of IFN-gamma involve adenylate cyclase, and possibly a NO-forming mechanism and cGMP pathway as well. It is also apparent that the two NO inhibitors function via different mechanisms or that LNMMA has a direct effect on the calcium-signaling pathway.