The brain responds to noxious stimulation with protective signalling. Over the last decades, a number of experimental strategies have been established to study endogenous brain protection. Pre-, per-, post- and remote 'conditioning' are now widely used to unravel the underlying mechanisms of endogenous neuroprotection. Some of these strategies are currently being tested in clinical trials to protect the human brain against anticipated damage or to boost protective responses during or after injury. Here we summarize the principles of 'conditioning' research and current efforts to translate this knowledge into effective treatment of patients. Conditioning to induce protected brain states provides an experimental window into endogenous brain protection and can lead to the discovery of drugs mimicking the effects of conditioning. Mechanisms of endogenous brain tolerance can be activated through a wide variety of stimuli that signal 'danger' to the brain. These danger signals lead to the induction of regulator and effector mechanisms, which suppress death and induce survival pathways, decrease metabolism, as well as increase substrate delivery. We conclude that preclinical research on endogenous brain protection has greatly benefited from conditioning strategies, but that clinical applications are challenging, and that we should not prematurely rush into ill-designed and underpowered clinical trials.