Oxidative stress is increased in the retina in diabetes, and long-term administration of antioxidants inhibits the development of retinopathy in diabetic rats. The purpose of this study is to determine how diabetes affects the activation of a redox-sensitive nuclear transcriptional factor in the retina, NF-kappaB, and its inhibition by antioxidants. Alloxan diabetic rats were assigned to receive standard diet or the diet supplemented with multiple antioxidants, including ascorbic acid, Trolox, dl alpha-tocopherol acetate, N-acetyl cysteine, beta-carotene, and selenium for up to 14 months. NF-kappaB activation, oxidative stress and nitric oxides were measured in the retina at 2, 8 and 14 months of diabetes. Retinal NF-kappaB was activated by about 60% at two months after induction of diabetes, remained activated for up to 14 months of diabetes, and the duration of diabetes had no effect on the intensity of NF-kappaB activation. Similarly, oxidative stress and nitric oxides were elevated by over 50% in the retina of rats diabetic for 14 months, and nitrotyrosine levels were elevated by over two folds. Administration of the antioxidants to the rats for the entire duration of diabetes inhibited activation of NF-kappaB and elevations in oxidative stress, nitric oxides and nitrotyrosine formation without ameliorating the severity of hyperglycemia. These in vivo results were confirmed by in vitro studies showing that high glucose activates NF-kappaB and elevates NO and lipid peroxides in both retinal endothelial cells and pericytes that can be inhibited by antioxidants. Thus, the results suggest that the activation of retinal NF-KB in diabetes is an early event in the development of retinopathy, and it remains active when the retinal capillary cell death is accelerating, and histopathology is developing. Beneficial effects of antioxidants on the development of diabetic retinopathy might involve inhibition of NF-kappaB activation and its downstream pathways in the retina.