The microtubule-disrupting agent colchicine is known to be neurotoxic toward certain neuronal populations including cerebellar granule cells (CGCs). In this study we investigated the involvement of cytochrome c release and caspase-3 activation during colchicine-induced CGC apoptosis. Treatment of rat CGCs with 1 micrometer colchicine (for up to 24 h) caused high molecular weight DNA fragmentation and nuclear condensation. An involvement of group II caspases (which includes caspase-3) was demonstrated by the proteolytic degradation of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) after 18 h exposure to colchicine. Colchicine induced a time-dependent increase in Ac-Asp-Glu-Val-Asp-alpha-(4-methyl-coumaryl-7-amide) (DEVD-MCA) cleavage activity in CGCs, which was blocked with a specific, peptide-based, aldehyde inhibitor of group II caspases, i. e. DEVD-CHO. We also observed a time-dependent proteolysis of caspase-3 as judged by the appearance of p17 which is one of the subunits of active caspase-3. Activation of caspase-3 during colchicine-induced apoptosis may be mediated by cytochrome c since there was a close correlation between the time courses of cytochrome c release from the mitochondria and of caspase-3 activation. Furthermore, colchicine-induced apoptosis, as assessed by propidium iodide visualization of the nuclei, could be blocked by the caspase inhibitor benzyloxycarbonyl-Val-Ala-Asp (O-methyl) fluoromethyl ketone.