An excess of the free radical nitric oxide (NO) is viewed as a deleterious factor involved in various CNS disorders. The protective effect of panaxydol (PND) and panaxynol (PNN) on sodium nitroprusside (SNP)-induced neuronal apoptosis and potential mechanism were investigated in primary cultured rat cortical neurons. Pretreatment of the cells with PND or PNN for 24 h following 1mM SNP, an exogenous NO donor, exposure for 1h, resulted significantly in reduction of cell death induced by SNP determined by MTT assay, LDH release and Hoechst staining. 5 microM PND and PNN also reduced the up-regulation of the pro-apoptotic gene, Bax, down-regulation of the anti-apoptotic gene, Bcl-2. The observations demonstrated that PND and PNN protect neurons against SNP-induced apoptosis via regulating the apoptotic related genes. The results raise the possibility that PND and PNN reduce neurodegeneration in the Alzheimer's brain.