Autophagy is the regulated process by which cytoplasmic organelles and long-lived proteins are delivered for lysosomal degradation. Increased numbers of autophagosomes and autolysosomes often represent prominent ultrastructural features of degenerating or dying neurons. This morphology is characteristic not only of neurons undergoing pathologic degeneration, but also during developmental programmed cell death of some neuronal populations. In recent years, a growing number of reports highlight potentially important roles for autophagy-related processes in relation to protein aggregation, regulated cell death pathways, and neurodegeneration. While starvation-induced autophagy involves nonselective bulk degradation of cytoplasm, mechanisms that regulate selective targeting of damaged organelles form an emerging area. As the study of autophagy evolves from physiologic homeostasis to pathologic situations, consideration of terminology and definitions becomes important. Increased autophagic vacuoles do not necessarily correlate with increased autophagic activity or flux. Instead, the striking accumulation of autophagic vacuoles in dying or degenerating neurons likely reflects an imbalance between the rates of autophagic sequestration and completion of the degradative process. In other words, these cells can be thought of as undergoing "autophagic stress." The concept of autophagic stress may reconcile apparently conflicting roles of autophagy-related processes in adaptive, homeostatic responses and in pathways of neurodegeneration and cell death.