Autophagy, a lysosomal pathway for degrading organelles and long-lived proteins, is becoming recognized as a key adaptive response that can preclude death in stressed or diseased cells. However, during development strong induction of autophagy in specific cell populations mediates a type of programmed cell death that has distinctive 'autophagic' morphology and a requirement for autophagy activity. The recent identification of autophagosomes in neurons in a growing number of neurodegenerative disorders has, therefore, sparked controversy about whether these structures are contributing to neuronal cell death or protecting against it. Emerging evidence supports the view that induction of autophagy is a neuroprotective response and that inadequate or defective autophagy, rather than excessive autophagy, promotes neuronal cell death in most of these disorders. In this review, we consider possible mechanisms underlying autophagy-associated cell death and their relationship to pathways mediating apoptosis and necrosis.