The ability of oxidative stress to induce apoptosis, and the effect of Ginkgo biloba extract (EGb761) on this induction were studied in primary cultured rat cerebellar neuronal cells. Cells were exposed to hydroxyl radicals by treating them with 20-50 microM hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and 100 microM ferrous sulfate. Hydroxyl radical treatment fragmented the DNA in a manner typical of apoptosis cells, producing a ladder pattern of 200 base pair increments on 1% agarose gel electrophoresis. Pretreatment of cells with 100 micrograms/ml EGb reduced hydroxyl radical induced cells apoptosis (determined by flow cytometry) and DNA fragmentation. The results indicate that hydroxyl radicals induce apoptosis in rat cerebellar neuronal cells and this induction can be prevented by EGb.