The function of neuromelanin (NM), the oxidized dopamine (DA) polymer, within the DA-producing cells in the human and primate substantia nigra (SN), is still an enigma. Some studies show that the vulnerability of nigral neurons in Parkinson's disease is correlated to their toxic NM content, while others suggest that it contributes to cellular protection. We showed recently that DA, the endogenous nigral neurotransmitter, triggers apoptosis, an active program of cellular self-destruction, in neuronal cultures. In the present study, we exposed cells to synthetic dopamine-melanin (DA-M) and analysed the cellular and genetic changes. We found that exposure of PC12 cells to DA-M (0.5 mg/ml for 24 h) caused 50% cell death, as indicated by trypan blue exclusion assay and 3H-thymidine incorporation. Gel electrophoresis DNA analysis of PC12 cells treated with DA-M showed the typical apoptotic DNA ladder, indicating inter-nucleosomal DNA degradation. The DNA fragmentation also was visualized histochemically in situ by DNA end-labeling staining (the TUNEL method). The FeCl2 (0.05 mM) significantly increased DA-M toxicity, while desferrioxamine, an iron chelator, totally abolished the additive toxicity of iron. The contribution of oxidative stress in this model of DA-M-induced cell death was examined using various antioxidants. In contrast to DA, inhibition of DA-M toxicity antioxidants by reduced glutathione (GSH), N-acetyl cysteine, catalase and Zn/Cu superoxide dismutase (SOD) was very limited. In conclusion, we found that DA-M may induce typical apoptotic death in PC12 cells. Our findings support a possible role of NM in the vulnerability of the dopaminergic neural degeneration in Parkinson's disease. The differential protective effect by antioxidants against toxicity of DA and DA-M may have implications for future neuroprotective therapeutic approaches for this common neurological disorder.