Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection of the central nervous system (CNS) causes AIDS dementia complex (ADC) in certain infected individuals. Recent studies have suggested that patients with ADC have an increased incidence of neuronal apoptosis leading to neuronal dropout. Of note, a higher level of the HIV-1 accessory protein Vpr has been detected in the cerebrospinal fluid of AIDS patients with neurological disorders. Moreover, extracellular Vpr has been shown to form ion channels, leading to cell death of cultured rat hippocampal neurons. Based on these previous findings, we first investigated the apoptotic effects of the HIV-1 Vpr protein on the human neuronal precursor NT2 cell line at a range of concentrations. These studies demonstrated that apoptosis induced by both Vpr and the envelope glycoprotein, gp120, occurred in a dose-dependent manner compared to protein treatment with HIV-1 integrase, maltose binding protein (MBP), and MBP-Vpr in the undifferentiated NT2 cells. For mature, differentiated neurons, apoptosis was also induced in a dose-dependent manner by both Vpr and gp120 at concentrations ranging from 1 to 100 ng/ml, as demonstrated by both the terminal deoxynucleotidyltransferase (Tdt)-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling and Annexin V assays for apoptotic cell death. In order to clarify the intracellular pathways and molecular mechanisms involved in Vpr- and gp120-induced apoptosis in the NT2 cell line and differentiated mature human neurons, we then examined the cellular lysates for caspase-8 activity in these studies. Vpr and gp120 treatments exhibited a potent increase in activation of caspase-8 in both mature neurons and undifferentiated NT2 cells. This suggests that Vpr may be exerting selective cytotoxicity in a neuronal precursor cell line and in mature human neurons through the activation of caspase-8. These data represent a characterization of Vpr-induced apoptosis in human neuronal cells, and suggest that extracellular Vpr, along with other lentiviral proteins, may increase neuronal apoptosis in the CNS. Also, identification of the intracellular activation of caspase-8 in Vpr-induced apoptosis of human neuronal cells may lead to therapeutic approaches which can be used to combat HIV-1-induced neuronal apoptosis in AIDS patients with ADC.