Earlier reports on nonneural cells have shown that the normally inner plasma membrane lipid, phosphatidylserine (PS), flip-flops out during the early stages of apoptosis, whereas DNA laddering and plasma membrane permeabilization occur during the late stages. In this study, the applicability of these parameters to CNS-derived neuronal cells was tested using hippocampal HN2-5, cells that undergo apoptosis under anoxia. Because such insults on unsynchronized cells, e.g., undifferentiated HN2-5 cells, result in both early and late apoptotic cells, we mechanically separated these cells into three fractions containing (a) cells that had completely detached during anoxia, (b) cells that remained weakly attached to the tissue culture dish and, once detached by trituration in serum-containing medium, did not reattach, and (c) cells that reattached in 2-3 h. Fractions a and b contained cells that showed pronounced DNA laddering, whereas cells in fraction c did not show any DNA laddering. Double staining with fluorescein isothiocyanate-annexin V (which binds to PS) and propidium iodide (which stains the DNA in cells with a permeable cell membrane) revealed that all cells in fraction a had a permeable cell membrane (propidium iodide-positive) and PS molecules in the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane (fluorescein isothiocyanate-annexin V-positive). By contrast, fractions b and c contained cells with no externalized PS molecules. Cells in fractions a-c also showed, respectively, 50-, 21-, and 5.5-fold higher caspase-3 (CPP32) activity than that in healthy control cells. All these results show that fraction a contained late apoptotic cells, which also had the highest CPP32 activity; cells in fraction b were at an intermediate stage, when DNA laddering had already occurred; and fraction c contained very early apoptotic cells, in which no DNA laddering had yet occurred. Therefore, in the neuronal HN2-5 cells, externalization of PS occurs only during the final stages of apoptosis when the cells have completely lost their adhesion properties. Further experiments showed that ameboid microglial cells isolated from neonatal mouse brain phagocytosed only the cells in fraction a. These results show that in CNS-derived HN2-5 cells, (a) PS externalization is a late apoptotic event and is concomitant with a complete loss of surface adhesion of the apoptotic cells and (b) PS externalization is crucial for microglial recognition and phagocytosis of the apoptotic HN2-5 cells. Thus, PS externalization could be causally linked to the final detachment of apoptotic neuronal cells, which in turn prepares them for rapid phagocytosis by microglia.