Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) is a primary heart muscle disease characterized by progressive atrophy of the right ventricular myocardium with fibro-fatty replacement and the risk of electrical instability and sudden death. The disease is often familial and the aetiopathogenesis is still unknown. Recently apoptosis (genetically determined cell death) was postulated to account for progressive loss of myocardium. To establish whether apoptosis is present in ARVC, right ventricular endomyocardial biopsies from 20 patients with clinical and histological diagnosis of ARVC were examined by electron microscopy and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end-labeling method (TUNEL). Apoptotic index was calculated as the percentage of positive nuclei in sections stained by TUNEL. Cell proliferation activity was also assessed by argyrophilic staining of the nucleolar organizer region (AgNOR) and MIB-1 antibody analysis. Twenty biopsies taken from patients during monitoring of cardiac transplantation (grade 0 rejection) served as control. Occurrence of apoptosis was correlated with clinical history duration and the presence of acute symptoms and signs like angina, pyrexia, erythrocyte sedimentation rate and creatine phosphokinase elevation, as well as ST segment elevation on basal electrocardiogram. Electron microscopy and TUNEL revealed presence of apoptotic myocytes in seven cases (35%) with a mean apoptotic index of 24.4+/-9.8. The remaining 13 patients and all of the 20 controls were negative both at the electron microscopy and TUNEL. Presence of apoptosis appeared to be significantly related to clinical history duration of less than 6 months (P < 0.001) and presence of acute symptoms and signs (P = 0.007). AgNOR staining and MIB-1 antibody analysis ruled out cell proliferation activity. In conclusion, apoptosis is present in endomyocardial biopsies of patients with ARVC, especially in the early symptomatic phase of disease. Myocardial destruction with replacement by fat may be episodic rather than gradual and continuous.