A caspase-3-activated DNase produces internucleosomal DNA cleavage (DNA laddering). We determined whether caspase-3 is activated by lithium-pilocarpine-induced status epilepticus in six brain regions with necrosis-induced DNA laddering. The thymuses of adult rats given methamphetamine or normal saline were used as controls for apoptosis. Some 6-8 h after methamphetamine treatment, thymocytes showed apoptosis by electron-microscopic examination, positive terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick-end labeling (TUNEL), DNA laddering, cleavage of caspase-3 into its active p17 subunit, active caspase-3 immunoreactivity, and a 25-fold increase in caspase-3-like activity. Six hours after SE, necrotic neurons by electron-microscopic examination in hippocampus, amygdala and piriform, entorhinal and frontal cortices showed no TUNEL and no DNA laddering. Twenty-four hours after seizures, most necrotic neurons were negative for TUNEL, some were positive, but all regions showed DNA laddering. However, 6 and 24 h after seizures, active caspase-3 immunoreactivity was negative, caspase-3-like activity did not increase, and western blot analysis failed to show the p17 subunit. In addition, 24 h after seizures,microdialytic perfusion of carbobenzoxy-valyl-alanyl-aspartyl (O-methylester) fluoromethylketone was not neuroprotective. Thus, caspase-3 is not activated in brain regions with seizure-induced neuronal necrosis with DNA laddering. Either caspase-activated DNase is activated by another enzyme, or a caspase-independent DNase is responsible for the DNA cleavage.