This study addressed the hypothesis that in human infants severe in utero insults induce a significant proportion of brain cells to undergo apoptosis. Morphologic criteria were used to quantify apoptosis and necrosis in the cingulate gyrus of two groups of infants: six infants who died after severe birth asphyxia with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, and six others who suffered unexpected and apparently sudden intrauterine death at or close to term. The fraction of apoptotic cells was much higher than basal levels determined in animal experiments, and within both groups increased in proportion to the severity of injury as determined by total cell death (p < 0.05). The mean fraction of apoptotic cells was similar in asphyxiated infants, 8.3% (95% confidence interval for the population, 3.7-12%), and in stillbirths, 6.7% (0.2-13.6%). In the asphyxiated group, 20.8% (11-30.6%) of cells were necrotic, but significantly less necrosis, 3% (0.4-5.6%), was seen in stillborn infants (p < 0.05). Cell death was apoptotic after birth asphyxia in 26% (1-51%) and 78% (41-100%) in stillborn infants. In situ end labeling studies confirmed the presence of DNA fragmentation in apoptotic cells. These results demonstrate that infants who die after intrauterine insults, both those with evidence of delayed cerebral injury after hypoxia-ischemia and those without, have a significant number of cells in the brain with the morphologic characteristics of apoptosis. They confirm that apoptosis contributes significantly to cerebral damage in the perinatal period.