Myonuclear apoptosis is an early event in the pathology of dystrophin-deficient muscular dystrophy in the mdx mouse. However, events that initiate apoptosis in muscular dystrophy are unknown, and whether elimination of apoptosis can ameliorate subsequent muscle wasting remains a major question. We have tested the hypothesis that cytotoxic T-lymphocytes initiate myonuclear apoptosis in dystrophic muscle, and examined whether perforin-mediated cytotoxicity plays a role in the pathophysiology of muscular dystrophy. Mdx mice showed muscle invasion by cytotoxic T cells and helper T cells at the onset of histologically detectable muscle fiber pathology. At this time, perforin-expressing cells were also present at elevated concentration. Mdx mice depleted of CD8(+) cells showed a significant reduction of apoptotic myonuclei concentration and a reduction in necrosis, judged by macrophage invasion of muscle fibers. Double-mutant mice, deficient in dystrophin and perforin, showed nearly complete absence of myonuclear apoptosis, and a significant reduction in the concentration of macrophages in the connective tissue surrounding muscle fibers. However, muscle fiber invasion by macrophages was not reduced significantly in double mutant mice. Thus, cytotoxic T-lymphocytes contribute significantly to apoptosis and necrosis in mdx dystrophy, and perforin-mediated killing is primarily responsible for myonuclear apoptosis.