The levels of zinc in the brain are directly affected by dietary zinc and deficiency has been associated with alcohol withdrawal seizures, excitotoxicity, impaired learning and memory and an accelerated rate of dysfunction in aged brain. Although zinc is essential for a healthy nervous system, high concentrations of zinc are neurotoxic, thus it is important to identify the most effective forms of zinc for treatment of conditions of the central nervous system. Accumulating evidence suggests that zinc-histidine complex (Zn(His)(2)) has greater biological potency and enhanced bioavailability compared with other zinc salts and also has antioxidant potential. Therefore, in this study we investigated the ability of zinc-histidine to protect cultured cortical neurons against hydrogen peroxide-induced damage. Pre-treating neurons for 18 h with subtoxic concentrations of zinc-histidine (5-25 microM) improved neuronal viability and strongly inhibited hydrogen peroxide-induced (75 microM, 30 min) cell damage as assessed by MTT turnover and morphological analysis 24h later. Low concentrations of zinc-histidine were more neuroprotective than zinc chloride. There was evidence of an anti-apoptotic mechanism of action as zinc-histidine inhibited hydrogen peroxide-induced caspase-3 activation and c-jun-N-terminal kinase phosphorylation. In summary, zinc supplementation with zinc-histidine protects cultured neurons against oxidative insults and inhibits apoptosis which suggests that zinc-histidine may be beneficial in the treatment of diseases of the CNS associated with zinc deficiency.