Celastrol, an active component found in the Chinese herb tripterygium wilfordii has been identified as a neuroprotective agent for neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s disease (PD) through unknown mechanism. Celastrol can induce autophagy, which plays a neuroprotective role in PD. We tested the protective effect of celastrol on rotenone-induced injury and investigated the underlying mechanism using human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells. The SH-SY5Y cells were treated with celastrol before rotenone exposure. The cells survival, apoptosis, accumulation of α-synuclein, oxidative stress and mitochondrial function, and autophagy production were analyzed. We found celastrol (500 nM) pre-treatment enhanced cell viability (by 28.99%, P < 0.001), decreased cell apoptosis (by 54.38%, P < 0.001), increased SOD and GSH (by 120.53% and 90.46%, P < 0.01), reduced accumulation of α-synuclein (by 35.93%, P < 0.001) and ROS generation (by 33.99%, P < 0.001), preserved MMP (33.93 ± 3.62%, vs. 15.10 ± 0.71% of JC-1 monomer, P < 0.001) and reduced the level of cytochrome C in cytosol (by 45.57%, P < 0.001) in rotenone treated SH-SY5Y cells. Moreover, celastrol increased LC3-II/LC3 I ratio by 60.92% (P < 0.001), indicating that celastrol activated autophagic pathways. Inhibiting autophagy by 3-methyladenine (3-MA) abolished the protective effects of celastrol. Our results suggested that celastrol protects SH-SY5Y cells from rotenone induced injuries and autophagic pathway is involved in celastrol neuroprotective effects.