To elucidate the sequence of events between the release of neurotransmitters and cavernous smooth muscle relaxation in erection, we studied the role of the cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) and cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) systems. In a well-established simian model, the effects of specific agonists and antagonists of the intracellular sequence for smooth muscle relaxation and potassium channel openers on the intracavernous pressure were examined. Sodium nitroprusside (10(-3) M), a nitric oxide releaser and thus a stimulant of the cGMP system, caused an increase in the intracavernous pressure from 82 to 115 cm H2O for 7 to 19 min and penile diameter from 24.8 +/- 2.28 to 43 +/- 4.87 mm. When nitroprusside was injected after methylene blue (10(-3) M), a specific antagonist of the enzyme guanylate cyclase, intracavernous pressure rise decreased significantly, but cromakalin, a potassium channel opener, provoked excellent increases after the block. A smaller dose of sodium nitroprusside (10(-4) M) caused an increase in intracavernous pressure from 35 to 85 cm H2O for 7 to 11.5 min. When nitroprusside was injected after zaprinast, a phosphodiesterase inhibitor, the increase in pressure ranged from 80 to 116 cm H2O for 15 to 30 min. Prostaglandin E1, an activator of the cAMP system, caused an increase in the intracavernous pressure of 20-80 cm H2O for 5 to 10 min, and an increase in penile diameter from 25 +/- 2.22 to 35 +/- 3.48 mm. The erectile response to PGE1, but not to cromakalin, was nearly abolished by ethylmaleimide, an adenylate cyclase blocker. The response to nitroprusside was significantly greater (P < 0.05) than to PGE1. Both systems, cAMP and cGMP, may be involved in cavernous smooth muscle relaxation, and cGMP is probably the predominant intracellular second messenger in penile erection in monkeys. Stimulants of the cGMP system, such as nitric oxide releasers, could represent a more physiological and effective approach in the treatment of erectile dysfunction.