Kainate is an effective excitotoxic agent to lesion spinal cord networks, thus providing an interesting model for investigating basic mechanisms of spinal cord injury. The present study aimed at revealing the type and timecourse of cell death in rat neonatal spinal cord preparations in vitro exposed to 1 h excitotoxic insult with kainate. Substantial numbers of neurons rather than glia showed pyknosis (albeit without necrosis and with minimal apoptosis occurrence) already apparent on kainate washout and peaking 12 h later with dissimilar spinal topography. Neurons appeared to suffer chiefly through a process involving anucleolytic pyknosis mediated by strong activation of poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase-1 (PARP-1) that generated poly ADP-ribose and led to nuclear translocation of the apoptotic inducing factor (AIF) with DNA damage. This process had the hallmarks of parthanatos-type neuronal death. The PARP-1 inhibitor 6-5(H)-phenathridione applied immediately after kainate washout significantly prevented pyknosis in a dose-dependent fashion and inhibited PARP-1-dependent nuclear AIF translocation. Conversely, the caspase-3 inhibitor II was ineffective against neuronal damage. Our results suggest that excitotoxicity of spinal networks was mainly directed to neurons and mediated by PARP-1 death pathways, indicating this mechanism as a potential target for neuroprotection to limit the acute damage to the local circuitry.