Patients experiencing spontaneous seizures of temporal lobe origin often exhibit a shrunken hippocampus, which results from the loss of dentate granule cells, hilar neurons, and hippocampal pyramidal cells. Although experimental attempts to replicate the human pattern of hippocampal sclerosis in animals indicate that prolonged seizures cause prominent injury to dentate hilar neurons and hippocampal pyramidal cells, dentate granule cells of animals are generally regarded as relatively resistant to seizure-induced injury. By evaluating pathology shortly after hippocampal seizure discharges were induced electrically, we discovered that some granule cells are highly vulnerable to prolonged excitation and that they exhibit acute degenerative features distinct from those of other vulnerable cell populations. Intermittent perforant path stimulation for 24 hours induced acute degeneration of dentate granule cells, dentate hilar neurons, and hippocampal pyramidal cells. However, stimulation for 8 hours, which was insufficient to injure hilar neurons and hippocampal pyramidal cells, was nonetheless sufficient to induce bilateral granule cell degeneration. Degenerating granule cells were consistently more numerous in the infrapyramidal than the suprapyramidal blade, and were consistently more numerous in the rostral than caudal dentate gyrus. Depending on the nature of the insult, acutely degenerating neurons exhibit distinct morphological features that are classifiable as either apoptosis or necrosis, although the degree of possible overlap is unknown. Light and electron microscopic analysis of the acute pathology caused by prolonged afferent stimulation revealed that degenerating hilar neurons and pyramidal cells exhibited the morphological features of necrosis, which is characterized in part by early cytoplasmic vacuolization before nuclear changes occur. However, acutely degenerating granule cells exhibited the clearly distinct morphological features of apoptosis, which include an early coalescence of nuclear chromatin into multiple nuclear bodies, compaction of the cytoplasm, cell shrinkage, and budding-off of 'apoptotic bodies' that are engulfed by glia. Whereas pyramidal cell debris persisted for months, granule cell debris disappeared rapidly. This observation may explain why significant granule cell vulnerability has not been described previously. These data document for the first time that dentate granule cells are among the cell types most vulnerable to seizure-induced injury, and demonstrate that whereas hilar neurons and pyramidal cells undergo a typically necrotic degenerative process, granule cells simultaneously exhibit morphological features that more closely resemble the degenerative process of apoptosis. This finding implies that the type of cell death induced by excessive excitation may be determined postsynaptically by the way in which different target cells 'interpret' an excitatory insult. This experimental model may be useful for identifying the biochemical mechanisms that initiate and mediate neuronal apoptosis and necrosis, and for developing strategies to prevent or induce these presumably distinct forms of neuronal death.