To reconstruct the events that may contribute to the accelerated death of retinal vascular cells in diabetes, we investigated in situ and in vitro the activation of nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB), which is triggered by cellular stress and controls several programs of gene expression. The retinal capillaries of diabetic eye donors showed an increased number of pericyte nuclei positive for NF-kappaB, when compared with nondiabetic donors, whereas endothelial cells were negative. Microvascular cell apoptosis and acellular capillaries were increased only in the diabetic donors with numerous NF-kappaB-positive pericytes. Likewise, high glucose in vitro activated NF-kappaB in retinal pericytes but not in endothelial cells, and increased apoptosis only in pericytes. Studies with NF-kappaB inhibitors suggested that in pericytes, basal NF-kappaB has prosurvival functions, whereas NF-kappaB activation induced by high glucose is proapoptotic. Pericytes exposed to high glucose showed increased expression of Bax and of tumor necrosis factor-alpha, which were prevented by the NF-kappaB inhibitors and mimicked by transfection with the p65 subunit of NF-kappaB, and failed to increase the levels of the NF-kappaB-dependent inhibitors of apoptosis. Colocalization of activated NF-kappaB and Bax overexpression was observed in the retinal pericytes of diabetic donors. A proapoptotic program triggered by NF-kappaB selectively in retinal pericytes in response to hyperglycemia is a possible mechanism for the early demise of pericytes in diabetic retinopathy.