Estrogen withdrawal in women leads initially to rapid bone loss caused by increased numbers or activity of osteoclasts. We previously have noted apoptosis of lacunar osteocytes associated with conditions of high bone turnover. Therefore, in this study, we investigated whether the increased bone loss associated with GnRH analogue (GnRH-a)-induced estrogen withdrawal affects osteocyte viability in situ in a way that would be directly contrary to the effect of estrogens on osteoclast viability. Transiliac biopsies were obtained from six premenopausal women, between 30-45 yr old, diagnosed as having endometriosis. Biopsies were taken before and after 24 weeks of GnRH-a therapy. Biopsies were snap-frozen and cryostat sectioned. Osteocyte viability, determined by the presence of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) activity, was reduced in all but one subject after treatment. Furthermore, in every subject, the proportion of osteocytes showing evidence of DNA fragmentation typical of apoptosis increased, as demonstrated using in situ DNA nick translation (P = 0.008). Gel electrophoresis of extracted DNA and morphological studies of chromatin condensation and nuclear fragmentation confirmed that changes typical of apoptosis were affecting the osteocytes. It was concluded that GnRH-a therapy caused a higher prevalence of dead osteocytes in iliac bone, probably caused by the increase in the observed proportion of osteocytes showing apoptotic changes. The capacity of bone to repair microdamage and to modulate the effects of mechanical strain is currently believed to be dependent on osteocyte viability. Our findings have therefore revealed a possible mechanism whereby estrogen deficiency could lead to increased bone fragility with or without an accompanying net bone loss.