Treatment of unfractionated human thymocytes in culture with the synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone induced cell death, as measured by trypan blue exclusion, after several hours of incubation. In purified subsets of human cortical and medullary thymocytes dexamethasone caused cell lysis with similar kinetics in both populations; 50% of thymocytes were killed after 20-24 h of incubation with the steroid. The mechanism of dexamethasone-induced cell death seems to correspond to apoptosis since degradation of DNA into oligonucleosome-sized fragments could be observed in the cultures treated with the steroid. A certain degree of DNA fragmentation and cell death could also be observed in control cultures of thymocytes. In contrast, peripheral T lymphocytes were resistant to the cytolytic effect of glucocorticoid hormone. The killing of human thymocytes by dexamethasone was inhibited by cycloheximide, suggesting that this cell death program requires a fully operating protein synthesis machinery and perhaps the induction of new proteins.