Neuronal apoptosis plays an essential role in early brain development and contributes to secondary neuronal loss after acute ischaemia. Recent studies have provided evidence that caspase-3 is an important downstream event after hypoxia-ischaemia in the immature brain, but a minor event in the adult brain. Our investigations have focused on cell populations that expressed apoptotic effectors in the enzymatic death pathway including cytochrome c, caspase-9 and caspase-3. Expression, activation and cellular localization of these proteins were studied using cleavage of fluorogenic substrate and immunohistochemistry in neonatal rat brain after unilateral focal ischaemia. Caspase-3 enzyme activity was elevated in brain homogenate between 6 and 48 h after reperfusion. This activation was preceded by that of caspase-9, between 3 and 24 h. Apoptotic cell death was finally accomplished by poly-ADP-ribose polymerase cleavage, an endogenous caspase-3 substrate. In addition, immunodetection demonstrated that cytochrome c and activated caspase-9 and caspase-3 were expressed not only in the neurones, the primarily affected cells, but also within the astrocytes, which constituted a dense network delineating the infarct. These results suggested that glial injury may promote the formation of cystic lesions such as those observed clinically in the newborn brain.