Although several prominent morphological features of apoptosis are evident in the cell body (e.g., cell shrinkage, membrane blebbing, and nuclear DNA condensation and fragmentation) the biochemical and molecular cascades that constitute the cell death machinery can be engaged in synaptic terminals and neurites. Initiating events such as oxyradical production and calcium influx, and effector processes such as Par-4 production, mitochondrial alterations and caspase activation, can be induced in synapses and neurites. Several prominent signal transduction pathways in synaptic terminals play important roles in either promoting or preventing neuronal death in physiological and pathological conditions. For example, activation of glutamate receptors in postsynaptic spines can induce neuronal apoptosis, whereas local activation of neurotrophic factor receptors in presynaptic terminals can prevent neuronal death. Factors capable of inducing nuclear chromatin condensation and fragmentation can be produced locally in synaptic terminals and neurites, and may propogate to the cell body. Recent findings suggest that, beyond their roles in inducing or preventing cell death, apoptotic and anti-apoptotic cascades play roles in synaptic plasticity (structural remodelling and long-term functional changes). For example, caspase activation results in proteolysis of glutamate receptor (AMPA) subunits, which results in altered neuronal responsivity to glutamate. Activation of neurotrophic factor receptors in synaptic terminals can result in local changes in energy metabolism and calcium homeostasis, and can induce long-term changes in synaptic transmission. The emerging data therefore suggest that synapses can be considered as autonomous compartments in which both pro- and anti-apoptotic signaling pathways are activated resulting in structural and functional changes in neuronal circuits. A better understanding of such synaptic signaling mechanisms may reveal novel approaches for preventing and treating an array of neurodegenerative conditions that are initiated by perturbed synaptic homeostasis.