Presenilin 2 (PS2) is a polytopic membrane protein that is mutated in some cases of familial Alzheimer's disease (AD). The normal functions of PS2 and its pathogenic role in AD remain unclear. We investigated the biological role of this protein in neurons, using adenovirus-mediated transduction of the PS2 gene into rat primary cortical neurons. Immunocytochemical analyses demonstrated increased PS2 immunoreactivity in most neurons infected with recombinant adenoviruses expressing PS2. Neurons infected with wild-type or mutant (N141I) PS2-expressing adenoviruses showed a significant increase in basal cell death, compared with those infected with control beta-galactosidase-expressing adenovirus. Moreover, PS2 overexpression markedly increased neuronal susceptibility to staurosporine-induced apoptosis. Mutant PS2 was more effective in enhancing apoptosis than its wild-type counterpart. Staurosporine-induced death was significantly inhibited by a specific caspase 3 inhibitor. Western analyses revealed that Bcl-2 protein expression was specifically down-regulated in neurons overexpressing PS2, which temporally corresponded to the accumulation of C- and N-terminal fragments of PS2. Additionally, expression of mutant, but not wild-type PS2, increased the production of beta-amyloid protein (Abeta) 42. These data collectively suggest that the pro-apoptotic effect of PS2 is mediated by down-regulation of Bcl-2. PS2 mutations may increase the susceptibility of neurons to apoptotic stimuli by perturbing the regulation of cell death.