Parkinson's disease is a debilitating neurodegenerative disease characterized by loss of midbrain dopaminergic neurons. These neurons are particularly sensitive to the neurotoxin 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium (MPP+), the active metabolite of 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP), which causes parkinsonian syndromes in humans, monkeys and rodents. Although apoptotic cell death has been implicated in MPTP/MPP+ toxicity, several recent studies have challenged the role of caspase-dependent apoptosis in dopaminergic neurons. Using the midbrain-derived MN9D dopaminergic cell line, we found that MPP+ treatment resulted in an active form of cell death that could not be prevented by caspase inhibitors or over-expression of a dominant negative inhibitor of apoptotic protease activating factor 1/caspase-9. Apoptosis inducing factor (AIF) is a mitochondrial protein that may mediate caspase-independent forms of regulated cell death following its translocation to the nucleus. We found that MPP+ treatment elicited nuclear translocation of AIF accompanied by large-scale DNA fragmentation. To establish the role of AIF in MPP+ toxicity, we constructed a DNA vector encoding a short hairpin sequence targeted against AIF. Reduction of AIF expression by RNA interference inhibited large-scale DNA fragmentation and conferred significant protection against MPP+ toxicity. Studies of primary mouse midbrain cultures further supported a role for AIF in caspase-independent cell death in MPP+-treated dopaminergic neurons.