Rabies virus infection of dorsal root ganglia (DRG) was studied in vitro with cultured adult mouse DRG neurons. Recent in vivo studies of transgenic mice that express the yellow fluorescent protein indicate that neuronal process degeneration, involving both dendrites and axons, occurs in mice infected with the challenge virus standard (CVS) strain of rabies virus by footpad inoculation. Because of the similarities of the morphological changes in experimental rabies and in diabetic neuropathy and other diseases, we hypothesize that neuronal process degeneration occurs as a result of oxidative stress. DRG neurons were cultured from adult ICR mice. Two days after plating, they were infected with CVS. Immunostaining was evaluated with CVS- and mock-infected cultures for neuron specific beta-tubulin, rabies virus antigen, and amino acid adducts of 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal (4-HNE) (marker of lipid peroxidation and hence oxidative stress). Neuronal viability (by trypan blue exclusion), terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end-labeling (TUNEL) staining, and axonal growth were also assessed with the cultures. CVS infected 33 to 54% of cultured DRG neurons. Levels of neuronal viability and TUNEL staining were similar in CVS- and mock-infected DRG neurons. There were significantly more 4-HNE-labeled puncta at 2 and 3 days postinfection in CVS-infected cultures than in mock-infected cultures, and axonal outgrowth was reduced at these time points in CVS infection. Axonal swellings with 4-HNE-labeled puncta were also associated with aggregations of actively respiring mitochondria. We have found evidence that rabies virus infection in vitro causes axonal injury of DRG neurons through oxidative stress. Oxidative stress may be important in vivo in rabies and may explain previous observations of the degeneration of neuronal processes.