Parkinson's disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by the appearance of intracytoplasmic inclusions called Lewy bodies (LB) in dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra and the progressive loss of these neurons. Recently, mutations in the alpha-synuclein gene have been identified in early-onset familial PD, and alpha-synuclein has been shown to be a major component of LB in all patients. Yet, the pathophysiological function of alpha-synuclein remains unknown. In this report, we have investigated the toxic effects of adenovirus-mediated alpha-synuclein overexpression on dopamine neurons in rat primary mesencephalic cultures and in a rat dopaminergic cell line - the large T-antigen immortalized, mesencephalon-derived 1RB3AN27 (N27). Adenovirus-transduced cultures showed high-level expression of alpha-synuclein within the cells. Overexpression of human mutant alpha-synuclein (Ala(53)Thr) selectively induced apoptotic programmed cell death of primary dopamine neurons as well as N27 cells. The mutant protein also potentiated the neurotoxicity of 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA). By contrast, overexpression of wild-type human alpha-synuclein was not directly neurotoxic but did increase cell death after 6-OHDA. Overexpression of wild-type rat alpha-synuclein had no effect on dopamine cell survival or 6-OHDA neurotoxicity. These results indicate that overexpression of human mutant alpha-synuclein directly leads to dopamine neuron death, and overexpression of either human mutant or human wild-type alpha-synuclein renders dopamine neurons more vulnerable to neurotoxic insults.