A neuropathological study of Holstein-Friesian calves with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) demonstrated decreased numbers of motor neurons in the brachial and lumbo-sacral regions of the spinal cord, together with swelling and accumulation of phosphorylated neurofilaments, and neuronophagia in most of the remaining motor neurons. The pyramidal tracts, motor cortex and thalamus were not affected. Synaptophysin immunohistochemistry revealed a marked reduction of punctate terminals but only around swollen neurones, suggesting loss of terminal afferents on motor neurons at advanced stages of the degenerative process. An immunohistochemical study of proteins linked with cell death and cell survival demonstrated reduced expression of Fas, Fas-L, Bcl-2 and Bax in swollen motor neurons. Punctate cytochrome C immunoreactivity, consistent with mitochondrial localization, was detected in the soma of normal motor neurons, but not in swollen motor neurons. Finally, no labelling of motor neurons with antibodies to cleaved (active) caspase-3 (17 kD) was detected, suggesting a lack of involvement of the apoptotic pathways in motor neuron death. Taken together, the present findings point to necrosis as a major cause of motor neuron death in the advanced stages of SMA in Holstein-Friesian calves. © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.