Serum-free cultures of PC 12 cells have been used as a model system for studying neuronal death occurring after neurotrophic factor deprivation. In this system, NGF rescues cells from death and prevents apoptotic DNA fragmentation. We report here that GM1 also promotes long- term survival of naive and NGF-pretreated PC 12 cells in serum-free medium and prevents internucleosomal cleavage of PC 12 cell DNA. In contrast to NGF, GM1 does not promote neurite outgrowth or somatic hypertrophy. The survival effects of GM1 are concentration dependent, with maximal activity at 30–50 microM. Optimal promotion of survival is obtained with multiple additions of GM1. Asialo-GM1 and sialic acid do not mimic these actions, indicating a requirement for the intact GM1 molecule. Prevention of serum-free PC 12 cell death is also obtained with di-, tri-, and tetrasialogangliosides. The ganglioside effects on survival and DNA fragmentation appear to be independent of macromolecular synthesis. GM1 is also effective under conditions in which cellular protein kinase C activity is downregulated by preexposure to high concentration of 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13- acetate. Furthermore, GM1 promotes long-term survival of cultured rat sympathetic neurons after withdrawal of NGF. These findings complement prior observations that gangliosides protect cerebellar granule neurons from neurotoxicity caused by exposure to excitatory amino acids and extend the actions of gangliosides to rescue of neuronal cells deprived of neurotrophic factor support.