Mitochondrial dysfunctions have been associated with neuronal apoptosis and are characteristic of neurodegenerative conditions. Caspases play a central role in apoptosis; however, their involvement in mitochondrial dysfunction-induced neuronal apoptosis remains elusive. In the present report using rotenone, a complex I inhibitor that causes mitochondrial dysfunction, we determined the initiator caspase and its role in cell death in primary cultures of cortical neurons from young adult mice (1-2 months old). By pretreating the cells with a cell-permeable, biotinylated pan-caspase inhibitor that irreversibly binds to and traps the active caspase, we identified caspase-2 as an initiator caspase activated in rotenone-treated primary neurons. Loss of caspase-2 inhibited rotenone-induced apoptosis; however, these neurons underwent a delayed cell death by necrosis. We further found that caspase-2 acts upstream of mitochondria to mediate rotenone-induced apoptosis in neurons. The loss of caspase-2 significantly inhibited rotenone-induced activation of Bid and Bax and the release of cytochrome c and apoptosis inducing factor from mitochondria. Rotenone-induced down-stream activation of caspase-3 and caspase-9 were also inhibited in the neurons lacking caspase-2. Autophagy was enhanced in caspase-2 knock-out neurons after rotenone treatment, and this response was important in prolonging neuronal survival. In summary, the present study identifies a novel function of caspase-2 in mitochondrial oxidative stress-induced apoptosis in neurons cultured from young adult mice.