Mammalian cardiomyocytes have limited regenerative capacity, such that cell death can result in a net loss of viable contractile elements and a decrease in cardiac functional reserve, both during normal ageing and after insults to the myocardium leading to heart failure. At least four types of cell death have been described, with apoptosis and necrosis being the most extreme phenotypes and most extensively studied. Many of the classical morphological and biochemical features associated with these forms of cell death have been derived from studies conducted in vitro and these may not always faithfully reflect events occurring in vivo. Before therapeutic interventions can be realistically developed, more studies need to be undertaken in vivo to simultaneously investigate these different death pathways, their control mechanisms and their relative contributions in depleting the pool of viable cardiomyocytes. We recently demonstrated immunohistochemically that a single injection of either a natural or synthetic catecholamine induces both cardiomyocyte apoptosis (identified by an anti-caspase 3 antibody) and necrosis (identified by an anti-myosin antibody) in the rat heart in vivo. After optimising the experimental conditions for hormone dose and temporal and spatial peaks of damage, the incidence of necrosis was 4-10 times greater than the incidence of apoptosis. Myocytes in the soleus muscle were also severely (7-10 %) damaged, involving both apoptosis and necrosis. In both striated muscles high levels of myocyte co-localisation for apoptosis and necrosis were observed, suggesting that secondary necrosis had occurred in most of the apoptotic myocytes in vivo. The ability of the catecholamines to cause myocyte death suggests that they might play an aetiological role in the progression of heart failure where over-activation of the sympathetic system results in sustained pathophysiological levels of these catecholamines. Experimental Physiology (2003) 88.3, 447-458.