The effect of sulfhydryl reagents on the activity of the cGMP-gated channel from bovine retinal rods was studied by measurements of 8-Br-cGMP-(cGMP)-induced calcium efflux from rod membrane vesicles and records of 8-Br-cGMP-dependent sodium currents through channels incorporated into planar lipid bilayers. N-ethylmaleimide and mersalyl (thiol blockers) as well as diamide (dithiol-disulfide conversion agent) have a dual effect on the channels activity: at low concentration, they increase the apparent affinity for cyclic nucleotide ("activation") at the same time inducing a loss of cooperativity for nucleotide binding; at higher concentration, N-ethylmaleimide and diamide produce a reduction of the amplitude and initial rate of the calcium release at saturating nucleotide concentration, while mersalyl is shown to reduce the activity of the channels in bilayer experiments ("inhibition"). Nitric oxide precursors have no effect. The results suggest that blocking at least 1 of the 3 cytoplasmic cysteine residues situated close to the cGMP-binding site in each channel subunit by N-ethylmaleimide, mersalyl, or diamide (forming a dimer between 2 subunits) increases the affinity for the nucleotide. Inhibition is produced by blocking at least one of the 2 other cytoplasmic sulfhydryl groups (N-ethylmaleimide, mersalyl, oxidized glutathione) or the 2 others (diamide, intrasubunit bridge), and may concern a process of channel inactivation. The 3 cytoplasmic sulfhydryl groups are accessible when the channels are in the open state, but not (or much less) accessible when the channels are in the closed state.