Inward currents activated by 8-bromc-cGMP and by muscarinic agonist were compared in N1E-115 mouse neuroblastoma cells using perforated- patch voltage clamp and Fura-2 imaging. The cGMP analog activates a voltage-independent inward current that is carried at least in part by Ca2+ because it persists in Na(+)-free saline when Ca2+ is present and is blocked by external Mn2+ and Ba2+. The current is similar to the inward current that develops during stimulation of M1 muscarinic receptors, and the currents activated by agonist and by 8-bromo-cGMP are not additive, indicating that the same pathway is involved. Inhibition of cGMP production with NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA), a competitive inhibitor of nitric oxide (NO)-synthase, prevents activation of Ca2+ current by agonist without affecting the content of intracellular Ca2+ stores or the ability of agonist to mobilize Ca2+. The inhibition is overcome by 8-bromo-cGMP. LY83583, a competitive inhibitor of guanylyl cyclase, reversibly blocks activation of Ca2+ current by agonist, again without affecting the content of Ca2+ stores or Ca2+ release. Rp-8-pCPT-cGMPS, an inhibitory analog of cGMP, also reduces the Ca2+ current and reduces Ca2+ influx during muscarinic activation. It is concluded that cGMP is the necessary and sufficient intermediate in the pathway linking muscarinic receptor occupancy to the activation of voltage-independent Ca2+ current. The pathway involves positive feedback. Calcium entering via voltage-independent channels preferentially stimulates NO-synthase, which leads to enhanced cGMP production and greater Ca2+ influx. Positive feedback may explain the rapid increase in cGMP that occurs during muscarinic receptor activation.