In brain and other tissues, nitric oxide (NO) operates as a diffusible second messenger that stimulates the soluble form of the guanylyl cylase enzyme and so elicits an accumulation of cGMP in target cells. Inhibitors of NO synthesis have been used to implicate NO in a wide spectrum of physiological and pathophysiological mechanisms in the nervous system and elsewhere. The function of cGMP in most tissues, however, has remained obscure. We have now identified a compound, 1H-[1,2,4]oxadiazolo[4,3-a]quinoxalin-1-one (ODQ), that potently and selectively inhibits NO-stimulated guanylyl cyclase activity. In incubated slices of cerebellum, ODQ reversibly inhibited the NO-dependent cGMP response to glutamate receptor agonists (IC50 approximately nM) but did not affect NO synthase activity. The compound did not affect synaptic glutamate receptor function, as assessed in hippocampal slices, nor did it chemically inactivate NO. ODQ did, however, potentially inhibit cGMP generation in response to NO-donating compounds. An action on NO-stimulated soluble guanylyl cyclase was confirmed in studies with the purified enzyme. ODQ failed to inhibit NO-mediated macrophage toxicity, a phenomenon that is unrelated to cGMP, nor did it affect the activity of particulate guanylyl cyclase or adenylyl cyclase. ODQ is the first inhibitor that acts selectively at the level of a physiological NO "receptor" and, as such, it is likely to prove useful for investigating the function of the cGMP pathway in NO signal transduction.