Increased expression of Hsp72 accompanies differentiation of human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells to neuron-like cells. By modulating cellular levels of Hsp72, we demonstrate here its anti-apoptotic activity both in undifferentiated and neuron-like cells. Thermal preconditioning (43°C for 30 min) induced Hsp72, leading to cellular protection against apoptosis induced by a subsequent treatment with staurosporine. Preconditioned staurosporine-treated cells displayed decreased Bax recruitment to mitochondria and subsequent activation, as well as reduced cytochrome c redistribution from mitochondria. The data are consistent with Hsp72 blocking apoptosis upstream of Bax recruitment to mitochondria. Neuron-like cells (with elevated Hsp72) were more resistant to staurosporine by all measured indices of apoptotic signaling. Use of stable transfectants ectopically expressing moderately elevated levels of Hsp72 revealed that such cells in the undifferentiated state showed enhanced resistance to staurosporine-induced apoptosis, which was even more robust after differentiation to neuron-like cells. Overall, the protective effects of differentiation, thermal preconditioning and ectopic Hsp72 expression were additive. The strong inverse correlation between cellular Hsp72 levels and susceptibility to apoptosis support the notion that Hsp72 acts as a significant neuroprotective factor, enabling post-mitotic neurons to withstand potentially lethal stress that induces apoptosis.