Elimination of neurons produced in excess naturally occurs during brain development through programmed cell death. Among the many survival factors affecting this process, a role for neurotransmitters acting on specific receptors has been suggested. We have performed an in vivo pharmacological blockade of the N-methyl- d-aspartate (NMDA) subtype of glutamate receptors, using the competitive NMDA receptor antagonist CGP 39551 at developmental stages corresponding to those at which a survival dependence on the stimulation of this receptor has been demonstrated for cerebellar granule neurons explanted in culture (typically from postnatal day 7 to postnatal day 11 or 13). We were able to demonstrate an increased level of DNA fragmentation in the cerebellum of the treated rats. At the P11 stage, in particular, the fragmented DNA extracted from the cerebellum of CGP 39551-treated pups showed a clear laddering of nucleosomal fragments after agarose-gel electrophoresis. Accordingly, in situ TUNEL technique showed a remarkable increase of cells positive for nucleosomal DNA fragmentation, particularly in the inner granular layer of the cerebellum of treated rats at P11 stage. Therefore, the natural rate of apoptotic elimination of cerebellar granule neurons is considerably enhanced under conditions of pharmacological blockade of the NMDA receptor, thus demonstrating, for the first time in vivo, a clear survival dependence of these neurons upon the stimulation of the NMDA receptor. Concomitantly with the increased rate of apoptotic elimination of granule neurons, the activity of two death proteases of the caspase family, in particular of caspase 3 and caspase 1 at a lower extent, was remarkably increased in the cerebellum of the treated rats. On the contrary, a marker related to the normal differentiation process of granule neurons, the enzyme ornithine decarboxylase, was strongly decreased in its activity in the cerebellum of treated rat pups.