The majority of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) degenerate and die after transection of the optic nerve (ON) in the adult rat. This secondary cell death can primarily be ascribed to apoptosis. Recent work strongly suggests a decisive role for a family of cysteine proteases, termed caspases, as mediators of neuronal apoptosis. In this study, we investigated whether activation of caspases contributes to delayed death of RGCs after axotomy. Intraocular application of various caspase inhibitors rescued up to 34% of RGCs that would otherwise have died 14 d after ON transection. Using a modified affinity-labeling technique, we detected a 17 kDa protease subunit upregulated after axotomy. Upregulation was prevented by caspase inhibitor treatment. The 17 kDa protein was identified as a CPP32-like protease by Western blot analysis and affinity labeling with biotinylated acetyl-Asp-Glu-Val-Asp-aldehyde, which specifically inhibits CPP32-like caspases. In vivo application of the irreversible caspase inhibitor benzyloxycarbonyl-Asp-Glu-Val-Asp-chloromethylketone revealed CPP32-like proteases to be major mediators of caspase-induced apoptosis in axotomized RGCs, because this inhibitor showed an even higher neuroprotective potential than the irreversible wide-range inhibitor benzyloxycarbonyl-Val-Ala-DL-Asp-fluoromethylketone. In summary, the data presented here provide further insight into the mechanisms of injury-induced neuronal apoptosis and could give rise to more effective therapeutic intervention strategies in CNS trauma and neurodegenerative diseases.