We examined the role of extracellular calcium entry, the possible involvement of axonal calcium channels, and the potential protective effect of calcium channel and calpain antagonists in axotomy-induced axonal degeneration using murine dorsal root ganglia in cell culture. We found that calcium entry is both necessary and sufficient to induce axonal degeneration after axotomy, and may be inhibited by cobalt, manganese, dihydropyridines, and bepridil. Tetrodotoxin and omega- conotoxin are ineffective in preventing axonal degeneration. The activation of calpains also appears to be necessary and sufficient for axonal degeneration to proceed, and can be blocked with membrane- permeant leupeptin analogs and the oxirane aloxistatin. Although other calcium-activated events may occur, it appears that inhibition of calpain is sufficient to preserve the axon at the light microscope level, and to prevent axonal cytoskeleton degradation as detected by immunofluorescent staining. Our results suggest that axonal degeneration after axotomy involves the following sequence of events: (1) a lag-period after axotomy prior to the onset of axonal degeneration, (2) entry of calcium into the axon through an intact axolemma via a calcium-specific ion transport mechanism, (3) activation of calcium-dependent effector molecules such as calpains, (4) degradation of the axonal cytoskeleton. The details of the second step require further elucidation, and are of particular interest because this step is a potential target for therapies directed towards peripheral neuropathies.