This study demonstrates a requirement for NF-kappaB activation in cis-diamminedichloroplatinum (cisplatin)-induced apoptosis in human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) cell lines. This conclusion was supported by the following observations: cisplatin induced IkappaBalpha degradation and NF-kappaB-dependent transcriptional activation prior to cell death; pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC), a chemical inhibitor of NF-kappaB activation, prevented apoptosis; lactacystin, an inhibitor of IkappaBalpha degradation, also prevented apoptosis; and finally, the expression of a super-repressor mutant IkappaBalpha blocked apoptosis. The expression of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha) was promoted by cisplatin treatment and was suppressed by PDTC treatment. In addition, a neutralizing antibody against TNFalpha protected cells from cisplatin-induced apoptosis. These findings suggest that NF-kappaB activation is required for cisplatin-induced apoptosis and TNFalpha may play an important role in NF-kappaB-mediated apoptosis in cisplatin-treated HNSCC cell lines.