Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease that is characterized by hyperplasia of the synovial fibroblasts, which is partly the result of decreased apoptosis. This study investigated the mechanisms through which curcumin, a polyphenolic compound from the rhizome of Curcuma longa, exerts its anti-proliferative action in the synovial fibroblasts obtained from patients with RA. Exposure of the synovial fibroblasts to curcumin resulted in growth inhibition and the induction of apoptosis, as measured by MTT assay, fluorescent microscopy and Annexin-V-based assay. RT-PCR and immunoblotting showed that treating the cells with curcumin resulted in the down-regulation of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 and the X-linked inhibitor of the apoptosis protein as well as the up-regulation of pro-apoptotic Bax expression in a concentration-dependent manner. Curcumin-induced apoptosis was also associated with the proteolytic activation of caspase-3 and caspase-9, and the concomitant degradation of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase protein. Furthermore, curcumin decreased the expression levels of the cyclooxygenase (COX)-2 mRNA and protein without causing significant changes in the COX-1 levels, which was correlated with the inhibition of prostaglandin E(2) synthesis. These results show that curcumin might help identify a new therapeutic pathway against hyperplasia of the synovial fibroblasts in RA.