Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is caused by survival of motor neuron (SMN) deficiency, leading to specific motor neuron attrition. The time course and molecular pathophysiologic etiology of motor neuron loss observed in SMA remains obscure. Mice heterozygous for Smn show up to 50% motor neuron attrition by 6 months of age and are used as a model for mild SMA in humans. To determine both the rate of cellular loss and the molecular events underlying motor neuron degeneration in SMA, motor neuron counts and mRNA quantification were performed in spinal cords of Smn(+/-) mice and wild-type littermates. Surprisingly, despite the chronic, subclinical nature of motor neuron loss, we find that the bulk of the loss occurs by 5 weeks of age. RNA isolated from the spinal cords of 5 week-old Smn(+/-) mice subjected to microarray analysis reveal alterations in genes involved in RNA metabolism, apoptosis and transcriptional regulation including a general perturbation of transcripts coding for calcium binding proteins. A subset of these changes in expression was further characterized by semi-quantitative RT-PCR and Western blot analysis at various time points. Taken together, these results indicate that spinal cord cells present the first signs of the apoptotic process consistent with a response to the stress of Smn depletion. A picture of comparatively rapid neuronal attrition in spite of the very mild nature of SMA is obtained. Furthermore, changes occur, which may be reactive to and not causative of the cellular loss, involving central cellular functions as well as calcium modulating proteins.