The Bax protein is widely known as a pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 family member that when overexpressed can trigger apoptosis in multiple cell types and is important for the developmental cell death of neurons. However, Bax was found here to be a potent inhibitor of neuronal cell death in mice infected with Sindbis virus. Newborn mice, which are highly susceptible to a fatal infection with neurotropic Sindbis virus, were significantly protected from neuronal apoptosis and fatal disease when infected with a recombinant Sindbis virus encoding Bax. Deletion of the N terminus of Bax, which mimics cleaved Bax, converted Bax into a pro-apoptotic factor in vivo. As mice mature during the first week after birth, they acquire resistance to a fatal Sindbis virus infection. However, Bax-deficient mice remained very sensitive to fatal disease compared with their control littermates, indicating that endogenous Bax functions as a survival factor and contributes to age-dependent resistance to Sindbis virus-induced mortality. The protective effects of Bax were reproduced in cultured hippocampal neurons but not in cultured dorsal root ganglia neurons. These findings indicate that cell-specific factors determine the anti-apoptotic versus pro-apoptotic function of Bax.