Our previous work has shown that a number of sphingolipid metabolites including sphingosine, sphinganine, and other long-chain bases potently induced apoptosis in human hepatoma cells. In this study, we examined the possibility that sphingosine may trigger apoptosis in human hepatoma cells via inhibition of anti-apoptotic pathways. We investigated the effect of sphingosine on AKT kinase, a serine/threonine kinase which was found to protect cells from apoptosis induced by a variety of extracellular stresses. Our results indicated that sphingosine inhibited basal and serum-stimulated AKT kinase activity in a dose-dependent manner in hepatoma cells. Additionally, sphingosine-induced inhibition of AKT kinase was correlated with induction of apoptosis in these cells. Pretreatment of insulin, a potent stimulator of AKT kinase, partially reversed the inhibition of AKT kinase by sphingosine and counteracted the apoptotic action of this sphingolipid. Expression of activated AKT kinase partially protected cells from sphingosine-induced apoptosis, whereas expression of kinase-dead AKT kinase had no effect. The molecular mechanism by which AKT kinase suppressed the apoptotic action of sphingosine was investigated. Our results showed that increased release of cytochrome C from mitochondria and subsequent activation of caspase-3 were detected in sphingosine-treated hepatoma cells. On the contrary, expression of activated AKT kinase in Hep3B cells attenuated cytochrome C release and caspase-3 activation induced by sphingosine. Taken together, these findings suggest that suppression of AKT kinase is one of the mechanisms by which sphingosine induces apoptosis in hepatoma cells and activation of AKT kinase may inhibit sphingosine-induced apoptosis by blocking a step upstream of cytochrome C release and caspase-3 activation.