The phenomenon of ischemic preconditioning was initially observed over 20 years ago. The basic tenant is that if stimuli are applied at a subtoxic level, cells upregulate endogenous protective mechanisms to block injury induced by subsequent stress. Since this discovery, many conserved signaling mechanisms that contribute to activation of this potent protective program have been identified in the brain. A clinical correlate of this basic research finding can be found in patients with a history of transient ischemic attack (TIA), who have a decreased morbidity after stroke. In spite of multidisciplinary efforts to design safer, more effective stroke therapies, we have thus far failed to translate our understanding of endogenous protective pathways to treatments for neurodegeneration. This review is designed to provide clinicians and basic scientists with an overview of stress biology after TIA and preconditioning, discuss new therapeutic strategies to target the protein dysfunction that follows ischemic injury, and propose enhanced biochemical profiling to identify individuals at risk of stroke after TIA. We pay particular attention to the unanticipated consequences of overly aggressive intervention after TIA in which we have found that traditional cytotoxic agents such as free radicals and apoptosis associated proteases is essential for neuroprotection and communication in the stressed brain. These data emphasize the importance of understanding the complex interplay between chaperones, apoptotic proteases including caspases, and the proteolytic degradation machinery in adaptation to neurological injury.