Exposure of various neuronal cells or cell lines to high concentrations of 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium (MPP+), the active metabolite of 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP), results in cell death. Recently, it has been reported that low concentrations of MPP+ induce apoptosis in susceptible neurons. We have further characterized MPP+-mediated toxicity of cultured cerebellar granule neurons (CGNs) and found that exposure of CGNs to relatively low concentrations of MPP+ results in apoptosis, whereas higher concentrations result in necrosis. Cotreatment of CGNs with MPP+ and the tetrapeptide inhibitor of caspase-3-like proteases, acetyl-DEVD-CHO, markedly attenuates apoptotic but not necrotic death of these neurons. The more specific inhibitor of caspase-1-like proteases, acetyl-YVAD-CHO, however, was ineffective against MPP+ neurotoxicity. Moreover, cytoplasmic extracts prepared from MPP+-treated CGNs contain markedly increased protease activity that cleaves the caspase-3 substrate acetyl-DEVD-p-nitroaniline. Finally, the cytoplasmic concentration of the apoptogenic protein cytochrome c was increased in a time-dependent fashion in MPP+-treated CGNs before the onset of apoptosis. Our data confirm that the neurotoxicity of MPP+ is due to both necrosis and apoptosis and suggest that the latter is mediated by activation of a caspase-3-like protease.