Many neurons in the developing nervous system undergo programmed cell death, or apoptosis. However, the molecular mechanism underlying this phenomenon is largely unknown. In the present report, we present evidence that the cell cycle regulator cyclin D1 is involved in the regulation of neuronal cell death. During neuronal apoptosis, cyclin D1-dependent kinase activity is stimulated, due to an increase in cyclin D1 levels. Moreover, artificial elevation of cyclin D1 levels is sufficient to induce apoptosis, even in non-neural cell types. Cyclin D1-induced apoptosis, like neuronal apoptosis, can be inhibited by 21 kDa E1B, Bcl2 and pRb, but not by 55 kDa E1B. Most importantly, however, overexpression of the cyclin D-dependent kinase inhibitor p16INK4 protects neurons from apoptotic cell death, demonstrating that activation of endogenous cyclin D1-dependent kinases is essential during neuronal apoptosis. These data support a model in which neuronal apoptosis results from an aborted attempt to activate the cell cycle in terminally differentiated neurons.