Oxidative stress has been proposed as a common mediator of apoptotic death. To investigate further the role of oxidants in this process we have studied the effects of antioxidants on Sindbis virus (SV)-induced apoptosis in two cell lines, AT-3 (a prostate carcinoma line) and N18 (a neuroblastoma line). The thiol antioxidant, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), at concentrations above 30 mM, completely abrogates SV-induced apoptosis in AT-3 and N18 cells. The effects of NAC cannot be attributed to inhibition of viral entry or viral replication, changes in extracellular osmolarity or to increases in cellular glutathione levels, nor can they be mimicked by chelators of trace metals, inhibitors of lipid peroxidation or peroxide scavengers. In contrast, other thiol agents including pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC, 75 microM) are protective. Because NAC and PDTC are among the most effective inhibitors of the transcription factor NF-kappa B, we examined SV's ability to activate NF-kappa B before the onset of morphologic or biochemical evidence of apoptosis. Within hours of infection, SV induced a robust increase in nuclear NF-kappa B activity in AT-3 and N18 cells; this activation was suppressible by NAC and PDTC. Over-expression of bcl-2 in AT-3 cells, which has been shown to inhibit SV-induced apoptosis, also inhibits SV-induced NF-kappa B activation. To determine if NF-kappa B activation is necessary for SV-induced apoptosis in these cells, we used double stranded oligonucleotides with consensus NF-kappa B sequences as transcription factor decoys (TFDs) to inhibit NF-kappa B binding to native DNA sites. Wild-type, but not mutant, TFDs inhibit SV-induced apoptosis in AT-3 cells. In contrast, TFD inhibition of NF-kappa B nuclear activity in N18 cells did not prevent SV-induced apoptosis. Taken together, these observations define a cell type-specific, transcription factor signaling pathway necessary for SV-induced apoptosis. Understanding the precise mechanism by which Bcl-2 and thiol agents inhibit SV-induced nuclear NF-kappa B activity in AT-3 cells may provide insights into the pluripotent antiapoptotic actions of these agents.