Sustained elevation in cGMP and a concomitant increase in intracellular Ca(2+) levels in the rd1 photoreceptors are followed by a rapid loss of photoreceptors. In a murine-derived photoreceptor cell line, 661W, treated with the phosphodiesterase inhibitor IBMX or the cyclic GMP-gated channel agonist 8-bromo-cGMP, it was previously found that the induced cell death was mediated by calpain and caspase-3. Because oxidative stress is a common product of ionic imbalance or elevated Ca(2+), we tested the role of oxidative stress in cGMP-induced photoreceptor cell death. In the rd1 mouse retina, oxidative stress was found to precede calpain and caspase-3 activation. In 661W cells, the increase in intracellular cGMP and Ca(2+) resulted in the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), the activation of oxidative stress enzymes, and the activation of calpain, followed by apoptosis mediated by the effector caspase-3. All these events, including calpain activation, were ameliorated by docosahexanoic acid (DHA). The cell-permeable inhibitor of calpain, SJA6017, while inhibiting cell death, had no effect on the generation of oxidative stress. These results establish a central role for oxidative stress in cGMP-induced cell death and suggest a ROS-mediated sequential activation of signal transduction events, which provide targets for future treatment strategies.