Endogenous generation of nitric oxide and its congeners, including peroxynitrite (ONOO-), has been implicated in the mechanism of neuron loss in neurodegenerative diseases. Accordingly, nitric oxide donors and ONOO-can elicit both apoptosis and necrosis in neuron cultures. Here we show that nitric oxide donors and ONOO- are each able to trigger apoptosis of mouse cerebellar granule cells by an excitotoxic mechanism requiring exocytosis and NMDA receptor-mediated intracellular Ca2+ overload. This conclusion is supported by the following findings. Apoptosis was induced by various nitric oxide donors or by direct addition of ONOO- to differentiated cerebellar granule cell cultures that were sensitive to NMDA toxicity, but not in cerebellar granule cells that did not display NMDA-induced cell death (i.e. early days in culture) or in various glial cell populations. Donors of ONOO- or nitric oxide stimulated a sustained increase in intracellular Ca2+, which was prevented by inhibitors of NMDA receptors, such as MK-801 and 5-phospho-aminovaleric acid, or by dampening neuronal electrical activity with high concentrations of extracellular Mg2+. Moreover, these treatments and the exposure of cerebellar granule cells in nominally Ca2+-free media prevented apoptotic cell death. Both the intracellular Ca2+ increase and apoptosis elicited by ONOO- or the nitric oxide donors were prevented by blocking exocytosis with tetanus toxin or botulinum neurotoxin C.