We characterized undifferentiated (UN) and three differentiation conditions of the SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cell line for phenotypic markers of dopaminergic cells, sensitivity to the neurotoxin 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridinium ion (MPP+), the requirement to utilize the dopamine (DA) transporter (DAT) for MPP+ toxicity, and the neuroprotective effects of pramipexole. Cells were differentiated with retinoic acid (RA), 12-O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13-acetate (TPA), and RA followed by TPA (RA/TPA). RA/TPA treated cells exhibited the highest levels of tyrosine hydroxylase and DAT but lower levels of vesicular monoamine transporter. The kinetics of [3H]DA uptake and [3H]MPP+ uptake to DAT in RA/TPA differentiated cells were similar to that of rat and mouse caudate-putamen synaptosomes. RA/TPA differentiated cells evidenced high sensitivity to the neurotoxic effects of MPP+ (0.03 to 3.0 mM), and the neurotoxic effects of MPP+ were blocked with the DAT inhibitor 1-(2-[bis(4-fluorophenyl)methoxy]ethyl)-4-(3-phenylpropyl)piperazine (GBR 12909). DA-induced cell death was not more sensitive in RA vs RA/TPA differentiated cells and was not inhibited by transporter inhibitors. RA/TPA differentiated cells exhibited 3-fold and 6-fold higher levels, respectively, of DA D2 and D3 receptors than UN or RA differentiated cells. Pretreatment with pramipexole was protective against MPP+ in the RA/TPA differentiated cells but not in undifferentiated or RA differentiated cells. The neuroprotective effect of pramipexole was concentration-dependent and dopamine D2/D3 receptor dependent. In contrast, protection by pramipexole against DA was not DA receptor dependent. Further characterization of the neuroprotective effects of DA agonists in this model system can provide unique information about DA receptor dependent and independent mechanisms of neuroprotection.