Neurodegenerative disorders such as prion diseases and Alzheimer's disease (AD) are characterized by neuronal dysfunction and accumulation of amyloidogenic protein. In vitro studies have demonstrated that these amyloidogenic proteins can induce cellular oxidative stress and therefore may contribute to the neuronal dysfunction observed in these illnesses. Although the neurotoxic pathways are not fully elucidated, recent studies in AD have demonstrated up-regulation of caspases in neurons treated with amyloid beta (Abeta) peptide, suggesting involvement of apoptotic processes. To examine the role of proapoptotic pathways in prion diseases we treated primary mouse cortical neurons with the toxic prion protein peptide PrP106-126 and measured caspase activation and annexin V binding. We found that PrP106-126 induced a rapid and marked elevation in caspase 3, 6, and 8-like activity in neuronal cultures. Increased annexin V binding was observed predominantly on cortical cell neurites in peptide-treated cultures. Interestingly, these effects were induced by sublethal (5-50 microM) or lethal (100-200 microM) concentrations of PrP106-126. Sublethal concentrations of PrP106-126 maintained elevated caspase activation for at least 10 days with no loss of cell viability. Abeta1-40 also up-regulated caspase 3 activity and annexin V binding at both sublethal (5 microM) and lethal (25 microM) concentrations. There were no changes to proapoptotic marker expression in cultures treated with scrambled PrP106-126 (200 microM) or Abeta1-28 (25 microM) peptides. These studies demonstrate that amyloidogenic peptides can induce prolonged activation of proapoptotic marker expression in cultured neurons even at sublethal concentrations. These effects could contribute to chronic neuronal dysfunction and increase susceptibility to additional metabolic insults in neurodegenerative disorders. If so, targeting of therapeutic strategies against neuronal caspase activation early in the disease course could be beneficial in AD and prion diseases.