The caspase inhibitor benzyloxycarbony (Cbz)-l-Val-Ala-Asp (OMe)-fluoromethylketone (z-VAD-FMK) has recently been shown to inhibit T cell proliferation without blocking caspase-8 and caspase-3 activation in primary T cells. We showed in this study that z-VAD-FMK treatment leads to a decrease in intracellular glutathione (GSH) with a concomitant increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels in activated T cells. The inhibition of anti-CD3-mediated T cell proliferation induced by z-VAD-FMK was abolished by the presence of low molecular weight thiols such as GSH, N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and l-cysteine, whereas d-cysteine which cannot be metabolised to GSH has no effect. These results suggest that the depletion of intracellular GSH is the underlying cause of z-VAD-FMK-mediated inhibition of T cell activation and proliferation. The presence of exogenous GSH also attenuated the inhibition of anti-CD3-induced CD25 and CD69 expression mediated by z-VAD-FMK. However, none of the low molecular weight thiols were able to restore the caspase-inhibitory properties of z-VAD-FMK in activated T cells where caspase-8 and caspase-3 remain activated and processed into their respective subunits in the presence of the caspase inhibitor. This suggests that the inhibition of T cell proliferation can be uncoupled from the caspase-inhibitory properties of z-VAD-FMK. Taken together, the immunosuppressive effects in primary T cells mediated by z-VAD-FMK are due to oxidative stress via the depletion of GSH.