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BACKGROUND: Apoptosis plays an important pathophysiologic role in neuronal cell loss and associated neurologic deficits following traumatic brain injury (TBI). DNA fragmentation represents one of the characteristic biochemical features of neuronal apoptosis and is observed after experimental TBI. DFF45 and DFF40 are essential for DNA fragmentation in various models of apoptosis. MATERIALS AND METHODS: We used mice deficient in DFF45 and wild-type controls. Oligonucleosomal DNA fragmentation induced by TBI was analyzed using in vivo and in vitro assays. Expression and integrity of DFF45 and DFF40 proteins was assessed by Western analysis. Other outcome measurements included neurologic scoring, learning/memory tests, lesion volume measurements (MRI), and assessment of cell viability in vitro among others. RESULTS: We compared the effects of controlled cortical impact (CCI) trauma in DFF45 knockout mice and wild-type controls. Analysis of TBI-induced DNA fragmentation in brain cortex from wild-type and DFF45 knockout mice indicates that, although somewhat delayed, oligonucleosomal cleavage of DNA occurs after TBI in DFF45 knockout mice. DFF45 knockouts showed no significant differences in behavioral outcomes or lesion volumes after TBI as compared to wild-type controls. Using an in vitro reconstitution system, we also demonstrated that cleavage of DFF45 by caspase-3 is not sufficient for DNA fragmentation induced by protein extracts from rat brain cortex. We found that endonuclease activity induced in rat brain cortex following TBI depends on the presence of Mg2+ and Ca2+, but is not inhibited by Zn2+. Primary neuronal cultures from DFF45 knockouts failed to show DNA laddering in response to staurosporine, but did show prominent, albeit delayed, DNA fragmentation following treatment with etoposide. In contrast, primary neurons from wild-type animals demonstrated marked DNA fragmentation following treatment with staurosporine or etoposide. CONCLUSIONS: The results of this study suggest that, in addition to DFF45/40, other endonucleases may be essential for chromatin degradation during neuronal apoptosis in adult brain after TBI.