In vertebrate embryos, neural crest cells emigrate out of the neural tube and contribute to the formation of a variety of neural and nonneural tissues. Some neural crest cells undergo apoptotic death during migration, but its biological significance and the underlying mechanism are not well understood. We carried out an in vitro study to examine how the morphology and survival of cranial neural crest (CNC) cells of the mouse embryo are affected when their actin cytoskeleton or anchorage-dependent cell spreading is perturbed. Disruption of actin fiber organization by cytochalasin D (1 μg/ml) and inhibition of cell attachment by matrix metalloproteinase-2 (MMP-2; 2.0 units/ml) were followed by morphologic changes and apoptotic death of cultured CNC cells. When the actin cytoskeleton was disrupted by cytochalasin D, the morphologic changes of cultured CNC cells preceded DNA fragmentation. These results indicate that the maintenance of cytoskeleton and anchorage-dependent cell spreading are required for survival of CNC cells. The spatially and temporally regulated expression of proteinases may be essential for the differentiation and migration of neural crest cells. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.