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Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) is a candidate human immunodeficiency virus type 1-induced neurotoxin that contributes to the pathogenesis of AIDS dementia complex. We report here on the effects of exogenous TNF-α on SK-N-MC human neuroblastoma cells differentiated to a neuronal phenotype with retinoic acid. TNF-α caused a dose-dependent loss of viability and a corresponding increase in apoptosis in differentiated SK-N-MC cells but not in undifferentiated cultures. Importantly, intracellular signalling via TNF receptors, as measured by activation of the transcription factor NF-kB, was unaltered by retinoic acid treatment. Finally, overexpression of bcl-2 or crmA conferred resistance to apoptosis mediated by TNF-α, as did the addition of the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine. These results suggest that TNF-a induces apoptosis in neuronal cells by a pathway that involves formation of reactive oxygen intermediates and which can be blocked by specific genetic interventions.