We have previously shown that not only motoneurons and dorsal root ganglion cells but also small neurons, presumably interneurons in the spinal cord, may undergo apoptotic cell death as a result of neonatal peripheral nerve transection in the rat. With the aid of electron microscopy, we have here demonstrated that apoptosis in the spinal cord is confined to neurons and does not involve glial cells at the survival time studied (24 hours). To define the relative importance of the loss of a potential target (motoneuron) and a potential afferent input (dorsal root ganglion cell) for the induction of apoptosis in interneurons in this situation, we have compared the distributions and time courses for TUNEL labeling, which detects apoptotic cell nuclei, in the L5 segment of the spinal cord and the L5 dorsal root ganglion after sciatic nerve transection in the neonatal (P2) rat. In additional experiments, we studied the effects on TUNEL labeling of interneurons after treatment of the cut sciatic nerve with either ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) to rescue motoneurons or nerve growth factor (NGF) to rescue dorsal root ganglion cells. The time courses of the TUNEL labeling in motoneurons and interneurons induced by the lesion show great similarities (peak at 8–48 hours postoperatively), whereas the labeling in dorsal root ganglion cells occurs later (24–72 hours). Both CNTF and NGF decrease the number of TUNEL-labeled interneurons, but there is a regional difference, in that CNTF preferentially saves interneurons in deep dorsal and ventral parts of the spinal cord, whereas the rescuing effects of NGF are seen mainly in the superficial dorsal horn. The results are interpreted as signs of a trophic dependence on both the target and the afferent input for the survival of interneurons neonatally. J. Comp. Neurol. 447:381–393, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.