Besides acting as potent free radical scavengers, tocopherols and tocotrienols have been known to have non-antioxidant properties such as the involvement of alpha-tocopherol (alphaT) in PKC pathway and the anti-cancer properties of gamma-tocotrienol (gammaT3). This study aims to elucidate whether protective effects shown by alphaT and gammaT3 in H(2)O(2)-induced neuron cultures have anti-apoptotic or pro-apoptotic tendency toward the initiation of neuronal apoptosis. H(2)O(2) is used to induce apoptosis in primary cerebellar neuron cultures which is attenuated by pretreatment of alphaT or gammaT3 at concentrations < or =10 microM. Similar to our previous work, gammaT3 was found to be neurotoxic at concentrations > or =100 microM, whereas alphaT showed no neurotoxicity. Cellular uptake of gammaT3 was higher than that of alphaT. Treating cells simultaneously with either gammaT3 or alphaT and with then H(2)O(2) led to higher expression of Bax and Bcl-2 than in neurons exposed to H(2)O(2) alone. Analysis of Bcl-2/Bax ratio as 'survival index' showed that both pretreatment of gammaT3 and alphaT followed by H(2)O(2) increase the 'survival index' of Bcl-2/Bax ratio compared to H(2)O(2)-treated cells, while treatment of gammaT3 alone decrease the ratio compared to unchanged Bcl2/Bax ratio of similar treatment with alphaT alone. Similar treatment of gammaT3 decreased p53 expression and activates p38 MAPK phosphorylation, whereas alphaT did not alter its expression compared to H(2)O(2)-treated cells. Treating neurons with only gammaT3 or alphaT increased the expression of Bax, Bcl-2, p53, and p38 MAPK compared to control with gammaT3 exerting stronger expression for proteins involved than alphaT. In conclusion, low doses of gammaT3 and alphaT confer neuroprotection to H(2)O(2)-treated neurons via their antioxidant mechanism but gammaT3 has stronger pro-apoptosis tendency than alphaT by activating molecules involved in the neuronal apoptotic pathway in the absence of H(2)O(2).