Neuronal apoptosis inhibitory protein (NAIP), and human inhibitors of apoptosis 1 and 2 (HIAP1 and HIAP2) are three members of the mammalian family of antiapoptosis proteins called ‘inhibitors of apoptosis’ (IAP). These molecules can prevent apoptosis in vitro and the over-expression of NAIP can decrease ischemic damage in the hippocampus. The goal of our experiments was to determine whether administration of NAIP, HIAP1 and HAIP2 could rescue motoneurons following axotomy of a peripheral nerve. In young rats, an adenoviral gene transfer technique was used to deliver and express these proteins in motoneurons; a fluorescent tracer was simultaneously added as a means for quantitatively assessing the rescue of fluorescently labelled motoneurons in serial sections of the lumbar spinal cord. Control experiments using adenoviral vectors (adv) expressing the lacZ gene showed that 14% of the sciatic motoneuron pool could be transfected indicating the existence of a subpopulation of spinal motoneurons susceptible to this class of viral vectors. The administration of an adv-NAIP, adv-HIAP1 and adv-HIAP2 rescued 30–40% of motoneurons at one week after sciatic axotomy. The efficiency of these proteins was similar to that of two neurotrophic factors, ciliary neurotrophic factor and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, administrated by the same viral technique. The effect of the IAP proteins on motoneuron survival decreased with time but was still present after 4 weeks postaxotomy; the duration of the response was dependent upon the viral titre. These experiments demonstrate that IAP family proteins can prevent motoneuron cell death in vivo and may offer a new therapeutic approach for motoneuron diseases.