Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) kill target cells by perforin-mediated pore formation, induction of apoptosis by the Fas ligand, or both. It has been demonstrated that depolarized neurons can be induced to express major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I antigens by interferon-gamma. Evidence for antigen-dependent CTL-mediated killing was obtained by transfecting neurons with MHC class I cDNA. The present study was designed to investigate the mechanisms of killing of cerebellar granule neurons depolarized by high K+ concentrations and thereby inducible for MHC class I antigen expression. We found that neurons express only low levels of Fas (APO-1/CD95) and are resistant to Fas ligand-mediated killing even when pretreated with cytokines. However, granules extracted from CTL as well as purified perforin induce almost complete lysis of neurons. These data suggest that CTL-mediated elimination of neurons involves the perforin, but not the Fas pathway of target cell killing.