Cerebellar granule neurons (CGN) cultured in the presence of serum and depolarizing potassium concentrations undergo apoptosis when switched to serum-free medium containing physiological potassium concentrations. Here we show that processing of the key protease, caspase-3, depends on the activation of caspase-9, but not of caspase-8. Selective peptide inhibitors of caspase-9 block processing of caspase-3 and caspase-8 and inhibit apoptosis, whereas a selective inhibitor of caspase-8 blocks neither processing of caspase-3 nor cell death. The data obtained with peptide inhibitors were confirmed by adenovirally mediated ectopic expression of the cytokine response modifier A (crmA), the baculovirus protein p35, and the X chromosome-linked inhibitor of apoptosis (XIAP). Further, caspase-8-activating death receptors do not mediate apoptosis in CGN and potassium withdrawal-induced apoptosis evolves unaltered in gld or lpr mice, which harbor mutations in the CD95/CD95 ligand system. Thus, neuronal apoptosis triggered by potassium deprivation is death receptor-independent but involves the mitochondrial pathway of caspase activation.