Previous reports have shown that DNA-damage-evoked death of embryonic cortical neurons is delayed by general caspase inhibitors and is accompanied by an increase in DEVD-AFC cleavage activity. We show here that this cleavage activity is lacking in camptothecin-treated caspase 3-deficient neurons. Moreover, we report that death of camptothecin-treated caspase 3-deficient neurons cultured from E16 embryos is delayed and that no significant increase in survival is observed with cotreatment with the general caspase inhibitor BAF. These results indicate that caspase-dependent death of camptothecin-treated cortical neurons requires caspase 3 activity. The delay in death is accompanied by impairment of DNA fragmentation. However, Bax-dependent cytochrome c release still occurs in camptothecin-treated caspase 3-deficient cortical neurons. Accordingly, we hypothesize that the delayed death which occurs in the absence of caspase 3 activity may be due to mitochondrial dysfunction. Finally, we show that the delay in death observed with E16 caspase 3-deficient neurons does not occur in neurons cultured from E19 embryos. This suggests that the requirement for caspase 3 in death of neurons evoked by DNA damage may differ depending upon the developmental state of the cell.