In neurons, DNA is prone to free radical damage, although repair mechanisms preserve the genomic integrity. However, activation of the DNA repair system, poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP-1), is thought to cause neuronal death through NAD+ depletion and mitochondrial membrane potential (delta psi(m)) depolarization. Here, we show that abolishing PARP-1 activity in primary cortical neurons can either enhance or prevent apoptotic death, depending on the intensity of an oxidative stress. Only in severe oxidative stress does PARP-1 activation result in NAD+ and ATP depletion and neuronal death. To investigate the role of PARP-1 in an endogenous model of oxidative stress, we used an RNA interference (RNAi) strategy to specifically knock down glutamate-cysteine ligase (GCL), the rate-limiting enzyme of glutathione biosynthesis. GCL RNAi spontaneously elicited a mild type of oxidative stress that was enough to stimulate PARP-1 in a Ca2+-calmodulin kinase II-dependent manner. GCL RNAi-mediated PARP-1 activation facilitated DNA repair, although neurons underwent delta psi(m) loss followed by some apoptotic death. PARP-1 inhibition did not prevent delta psi(m) loss, but enhanced the vulnerability of neurons to apoptosis upon GCL silencing. Conversely, mild expression of PARP-1 partially prevented to GCL RNAi-dependent apoptosis. Thus, in the mild progressive damage likely occur in neurodegenerative diseases, PARP-1 activation plays a neuroprotective role that should be taken into account when considering therapeutic strategies.