Neuronal apoptosis sculpts the developing brain and has a potentially important role in neurodegenerative diseases. The principal molecular components of the apoptosis programme in neurons include Apaf-1 (apoptotic protease-activating factor 1) and proteins of the Bcl-2 and caspase families. Neurotrophins regulate neuronal apoptosis through the action of critical protein kinase cascades, such as the phosphoinositide 3-kinase/Akt and mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways. Similar cell-death-signalling pathways might be activated in neurodegenerative diseases by abnormal protein structures, such as amyloid fibrils in Alzheimer's disease. Elucidation of the cell death machinery in neurons promises to provide multiple points of therapeutic intervention in neurodegenerative diseases.