Curcumin (diferuoylmethane) is a natural compound with anticarcinogenic activities which is able to exert either proapoptotic or antiapoptotic effects in different cell types. This paper focuses on the sequence and extent of primary events induced by curcumin, in comparison with those occurring during dexamethasone-induced apoptosis in rat thymocytes. It also presents annexin VI-FITC as a new probe for studying membrane asymmetry. Curcumin readily penetrates into the cytoplasm, and is able to accumulate in membranous structures such as plasma membrane, endoplasmic reticulum and nuclear envelope. Curcumin-treated cells exhibit typical features of apoptotic cell death, including shrinkage, transient phosphatidylserine exposure, increased membrane permeability and decrease in mitochondrial membrane potential. However, nuclei morphology, DNA fragmentation, the extent and time-course of membrane changes are different from those observed during dexamethasone-induced apoptosis, suggesting that, despite many similarities, the mode of action and the events triggered by curcumin are different from those occurring during typical apoptosis.