Members of the nerve growth factor (NGF) family promote the survival of neurons during development. NGF specifically activates the receptor trkA, initiating a signal transduction cascade which ultimately blocks cell death. Here we show that NGF can have the opposite effect, inducing the death of mature oligodendrocytes cultured from postnatal rat cerebral cortex. This effect was highly specific, because NGF had no effect on oligodendrocyte precursors and astrocytes. Other neurotrophins such as brain-derived neurotrophin factor (BDNF) and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) did not induce cell death. NGF binding to mature oligodendrocytes expressing the p75 neurotrophin receptor, but not trkA, resulted in a sustained increase of intracellular ceramide and c-Jun amino-terminal kinase (JNK) activity, which are thought to participate in a signal transduction pathway leading to cell death. Taken together, these results indicate that NGF has the ability to promote cell death in specific cell types through a ligand-dependent signalling mechanism involving the p75 neurotrophin receptor.