Nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB) is a transcription factor with a pivotal role in neuronal homeostasis. Indeed, NF-kappaB trans-activates several antiapoptotic genes in neurons and inhibition of NF-kappaB transcriptional activity triggers neuronal apoptosis. However, the exact mechanisms by which neurons undergo apoptosis in conditions of NF-kappaB inhibition are poorly understood. To further clarify how NF-kappaB operates in neurons, and to gather information on the molecular events occurring during NF-kappaB inhibition-dependent neuronal apoptosis, this study evaluated the effects of recently identified NF-kappaB inhibitors such as parthenolide, SN50, BAY 11-7082 and helenalin on primary cultures of rat cortical neurons. Data show that NF-kappaB was constitutively activated in neurons, and demonstrate for the first time that drug-dependent NF-kappaB inhibition induced rapid mitochondrial release of cytochrome c, caspase-9 and -3 activation, poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase-1 cleavage, membrane blebbing and nuclear fragmentation, without evidence of procaspase-8 and Bid processing. Interestingly, a burst of Akt activation occurred in neurons exposed to NF-kappaB inhibitors. These events were preceded by selective reduction of mRNAs of NF-kappaB-dependent, antiapoptotic Bcl-2 family members such as Bcl-x(L), Bcl-2 and, in particular, A1/Bfl-1. The present study reports a novel, detailed temporal analysis of the molecular events following impairment of NF-kappaB-driven transcription in neurons and demonstrates that inhibition of constitutive neuronal NF-kappaB activity triggers selective activation of the intrinsic apoptotic program.