Immature cerebellar granule neurons die by apoptosis within 1 week in vitro unless maintained in depolarizing (high) concentrations of potassium (25 mM K+). Neurons allowed to survive and differentiate in high K+ medium for several days in vitro are still induced to undergo apoptosis when switched back to physiological (low) concentrations of K+ (5 mM). Here we have investigated the effects of various cytokines and growth factors in these two well-defined paradigms of neuronal apoptosis. Tumour necrosis factor-α, leukaemia inhibitory factor, ciliary neurotrophic factor, interleukin-10 and interleukin-13 delayed apoptosis and prolonged survival of cerebellar granule neurons maintained in low K+ medium. The effect observed required continuous exposure of the cultures to the cytokines and appeared not to involve modulation of Bcl-2 protein expression. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor accelerated neuronal death in low K+ medium. In contrast, when apoptosis of the neurons was precipitated by switching mature high K+ neurons to low K+ medium, neither tumour necrosis factor-α, leukaemia inhibitory factor, ciliary neurotrophic factor, interleukin-10 nor interleukin-13 prevented apoptosis. When testing the cytokines and growth factors for their capacity to alter N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor-mediated excitotoxicity of differentiated cerebellar granule neurons, no significant effect was observed. These data appear to define a maturation-dependent modulation of cerebellar granule cell survival by cytokines and neurotrophic factors that are expressed in a developmental pattern in the mammalian brain.