Apoptotic death caused by diseases or toxic insults is preceded and determined by endoplasmic reticulum dysfunction and altered intraluminar calcium homeostasis in many different cell types. With the present study we have explored the possibility that the ER stress could be involved also in apoptotic death induced by serum deprivation in neuronal cells. We have chosen as a model of study the cell line HN9.10e, constituted by immortalized hippocampal neuroblasts. The Ca(++) concentration in the lumen of the ER has been evaluated by using the low affinity Ca(++) probe Mag-fluo-4. We show that serum deprivation lowers the ER Ca(++) concentration with a time course closely related to the increase of apoptosis incidence. Serum deprivation also enhances the expression of a well-known marker of ER stress, the glucose-regulated protein-78 (GRP-78), a member of the heat shock/stress response protein family. Moreover, in serum-deprived neuroblasts, following GRP-78 up-regulation, the ER-associated procaspase-12 is cleaved with a time course which parallels the ER calcium loss while activation of caspase-3 is a later event. Depletion of ER Ca(++) by thapsigargin, a specific inhibitor of the ER-associated Ca(++) ATPase, also produces caspase-12 processing and apoptotic cell death, whereas agents capable of reducing the ER calcium loss protect the cells from serum-deprivation-induced apoptosis. These findings indicate that, in hippocampal neuroblasts, Ca(++) mobilization from ER and caspase-12 activation are components of the molecular pathway that leads to apoptosis triggered by serum deprivation and may constitute an amplifying loop of the mitochondrial pathway.