Abstract Reactive oxygen species (ROS) and consequent aldehydic lipid peroxidation products have been identified as significant in the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Understanding and enhancing endogenous cellular protection against oxidants and aldehydes is therefore of interest in developing strategies to combat these diseases. In this study the role of the aldo-keto reductases AKR7A2 and AKR1C3 in protecting human astrocytoma 1321N1 cells against oxidant and aldehyde toxicity was investigated using siRNA gene silencing. Results show that both enzymes are responsible for part of the intrinsic protection against aldehydes and oxidants. Treating cells with sub-lethal concentrations of oxidant or aldehyde stress or with the natural coumarin 7-hydroxycoumarin (umbelliferone) revealed that endogenous resistance to aldehydes and oxidants can be induced significantly. The basis of the inducible protection by 7-hydroxycoumarin was shown to be associated with induction of the aldo-keto reductases AKR7A2 (1.5-fold) and AKR1C (3-fold), and this inducible protection was sufficient to overcome siRNA silencing of AKR1C3. These results indicate the importance of AKR family members in the detoxication of aldehydes, and also show that the natural phytochemical 7-hydroxycoumarin is a potential therapeutic candidate for neurodegenerative diseases.