We have examined whether sympathetic neurones that have lost the potential to be rescued by protein and RNA synthesis inhibitors after a period of nerve growth factor (NGF) deprivation are irreversibly committed to die. We found that 15 h after withdrawal of NGF from 7-day cultures of neonatal rat superior cervical ganglion neurones, 50% of the neurones lost the potential to be rescued by cycloheximide but that NGF rescued most of the neurones. By 22 h after NGF withdrawal, only 10% of the neurones were rescued by inhibition of macromolecular synthesis with cycloheximide, puromycin, or actinomycin D, but as many as 60-80% of the neurones were rescued by NGF. This is after the time at which a DNA "ladder," consistent with cell death by apoptosis, was first detected (18 h). As long as 27 h of NGF withdrawal was required before 50% of the neurones lost the potential to be rescued by NGF. The survival-promoting agent 8-(4-chlorophenylthio)cyclic AMP (CPTcAMP) or depolarization with 50 mM KCl (HK) rescued neurones with kinetics similar to those of NGF, and rescue by all three agents did not require protein synthesis. Thus, NGF, CPTcAMP, and HK can rescue neurones deprived of NGF at much later times than either protein or RNA synthesis inhibitors by acting at the posttranslational level, a finding suggesting that initiation of the cell death programme in sympathetic neurones is not an irreversible step.