Lesions to the mature mammalian central nervous system cause irreversible degeneration, in which neurons have been previously thought to be passive victims. In this study, axon-lesioned adult rat neurons are shown instead to actively degrade themselves through the process of apoptosis: a programmed type of cell death in which the cellular apparatus is actively involved in the degradation process. To investigate whether retinal ganglion cells of an adult mammal follow an apoptotic type of death when their axons are severed, DNA breaks in nuclei were labeled in situ, using a method that specifically incorporates biotinylated deoxynucleotides by exogenous terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase on the 3'-OH ends of DNA. The active nature of the death mechanism was demonstrated by the reduction in biotin-labeled nuclei after administering the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide. Our results suggest that retinal ganglion cells of the adult rat die through apoptosis when axotomized. This raises new possibilities in the treatment of CNS injuries, by the potential interruptibility of a program for neuronal death.