The molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying neuronal loss in neurodegenerative diseases are unclear. It is generally thought that aggregation of mutated, abnormally modified or abnormally folded proteins leads to the accumulation of extracellular, intracellular or intranuclear deposits that severely compromise cell physiology, leading to the death of the affected neurons. However, there is growing evidence that neuronal apoptosis in the absence of obvious pathological deposits could have a serious impact on the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases. alpha-Synuclein has been implicated in aetiology and pathogenesis of certain neurodegenerative diseases, although the precise role of this protein in neurodegeneration is uncertain. The normal functions of alpha-synuclein and other members of the synuclein family in the development and function of the nervous system also remain elusive. Here we show that overexpression of wild-type and mutant forms of alpha-synuclein in cultured neurons, but not the closely related persyn (gamma-synuclein), causes apoptosis. These findings suggest that abnormalities of alpha-synuclein metabolism could lead to the neuronal loss occurring in certain forms of neurodegeneration before the formation of characteristic pathological lesions.