The cardioprotective actions of nitric oxide (NO) have largely been attributed to cGMP. NO may, however, elicit some biological actions independently of cGMP. We tested the hypothesis that the NO donor sodium nitroprusside specifically protects isolated cardiomyocytes from injury at least in part independently of its ability to elevate cGMP by using metabolic inhibition to simulate ischemia. Metabolic inhibition-induced injury of adult rat cardiomyocytes (increased activity of lactate dehydrogenase and creatine kinase) was significantly reduced by sodium nitroprusside by at least 30% at all concentrations studied (0.3-100 microM). Sodium nitroprusside (1 microM) increased cardiomyocyte cGMP content, but neither a stable analogue of cGMP (8-bromo-cGMP) nor a potent cGMP stimulus (atrial natriuretic peptide) mimicked the protective effects of sodium nitroprusside. Moreover, inhibition of soluble guanylyl cyclase failed to inhibit sodium nitroprusside cardiomyocyte protection. Conversely, inhibition of either ATP-sensitive potassium (K(ATP)) channels with glibenclamide (10 microM) or calcium-sensitive potassium (K(Ca)) channels with tetraethylammonium bromide (1 mM) or iberiotoxin (20 nM) markedly attenuated the cardioprotective actions of sodium nitroprusside. In conclusion, sodium nitroprusside protects isolated cardiomyocytes from metabolic inhibition independently of cGMP; rather, inhibition of K(Ca) and K(ATP) channels reverses the sodium nitroprusside actions, thus unmasking another mechanism for NO-mediated protection in cardiomyocytes.