Reactive nitrogen species are thought to be involved in both hypoxic-ischemic and cytokine-induced brain injury, including periventricular leukomalacia (PVL), the major pathological substrate of cerebral palsy in premature infants. PVL appears to be the result of perinatal inflammatory events and hypoxic-ischemic injury to the cerebral white matter. The chronic disturbance of myelination resulting from PVL suggests that developing oligodendrocytes (OLs) are involved in its pathogenesis. We hypothesized that nitric oxide (NO) could participate in the pathogenesis of PVL through a toxic effect on developing OLs. Using primary cultures of highly enriched OLs we found that NO is toxic to developing OLs (O4+, O1-, MBP-), with an EC50 value of 236 +/- 125 microm of DETANOnoate. Peroxynitrite formation does not appear to be involved in NO toxicity in developing OLs, as determined by the failure of peroxynitrite scavengers as well as superoxide dismutase overexpression to prevent NO-induced toxicity. Similarly, several pathways involving PARP, excitotoxicity, guanylyl cyclase and caspase activation were not related to NO toxicity to developing OLs. NO toxicity to OLs resulted in ATP depletion and loss of mitochondrial membrane potential (DeltaPsi) in developing OLs. Apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) has been shown to be involved in caspase-independent cell death, and we found that AIF translocated from mitochondria into the nucleus upon NO exposure. In conclusion, we suggest that the vulnerability of developing OLs to NO involves mitochondrial dysfunction and translocation of AIF from mitochondria to nuclei.