The hematopoietic cytokine erythropoietin (Epo) exerts cytoprotective effects on several types of neuronal cells both in vivo and in culture. Detailed molecular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon have not been elucidated and even the identity of the cytoprotective Epo receptors in neuronal cells is controversial. Here we show that Epo prevents staurosporine-induced apoptosis of differentiated human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells, and activates the STAT5, AKT and MAPK signaling pathways. Differentiated SH-SY5Y cells have fewer than 50 high affinity Epo surface binding sites per cell, which could not be detected by standard assays measuring binding of 125I-labeled Epo. However, by measuring endocytosis of 125I-Epo, we could reliably quantify very small numbers of high-affinity Epo surface binding sites. Using SH-SY5Y cells stably expressing an Epo receptor (EpoR) shRNA and thus lacking detectable EpoR expression, we show that high affinity binding of Epo to these neuronal cells is mediated by the hematopoietic EpoR, and that this EpoR is also essential for the antiapoptotic activity of Epo. In contrast, a mutant Epo that has an intact binding site 1 but a non-functional binding site 2 and hence binds only to one cell surface EpoR molecule ("site 2" Epo mutant) displays significantly lower antiapoptotic activity than wild-type Epo. Furthermore, expression of the GM-CSF/IL-3/IL-5 receptor common beta chain, which was proposed to be responsible for the cytoprotective activity of Epo on certain types of neuronal cells, was undetectable in differentiated SH-SY5Y cells. Epo also alleviated staurosporine-induced apoptosis of rat PC-12 pheochromocytoma cells while the R103A "site 2" Epo mutant did not, and we could not detect expression of the common beta chain in PC-12 cells. Together our results indicate that Epo exerts its antiapoptotic effects on differentiated SH-SY5Y and PC-12 cells through the standard stoichiometry of one molecule of Epo binding to two EpoR subunits, comprising the "classical" Epo receptor signaling complex.