Cisplatin (CDDP) is a highly effective chemotherapeutic agent but with significant ototoxic side effects. Apoptosis is an important mechanism of cochlear hair cell loss following exposure to an ototoxic level of CDDP. This study examines intracellular pathways involved in hair cell death induced by CDDP exposure in vivo to develop effective therapeutic strategies to protect the auditory receptor from CDDP-initiated hearing loss. Guinea pigs were treated with systemic administration of CDDP. Cochlear hair cells from CDDP-treated animals exhibited classic apoptotic alterations in their morphology. Several important signaling events that regulate the death of CDDP-injured cochlear hair cells were identified. CDDP treatment induced the activation and redistribution of cytosolic Bax and the release of cytochrome c from injured mitochondria. Activation of caspase-9 and caspase-3, but not caspase-8, was detected after treatment with CDDP, and the cleavage of fodrin by activated caspase-3 was observed within damaged hair cells. Intracochlear perfusions with caspase-3 inhibitor (z-DEVD-fmk) and caspase-9 inhibitor (z-LEHD-fmk) prevent hearing loss and loss of sensory cells, but caspase-8 inhibitor (z-IETD-fmk) and cathepsin B inhibitor (z-FA-fmk) do not. Although the stress-activated protein kinase/c-Jun NH(2)-terminal kinase (JNK) signaling pathway is activated in response to CDDP toxicity, intracochlear perfusion of d-JNKI-1, a JNK inhibitor, did not protect against CDDP ototoxicity but instead potentiated the ototoxic effects of CDDP. The results of the present study show that blocking a critical step in apoptosis may be a useful strategy to prevent harmful side effects of CDDP ototoxicity in patients having to undergo chemotherapy.