Heme oxygenase (HO) catalyzes the breakdown of heme to iron, carbon monoxide (CO), and biliverdin, the latter being further reduced to bilirubin (BR). A protective role of the inducible isoform, HO-1, has been described in pathological conditions associated with reactive oxygen species (ROS) and oxidative damage. The aim of this study was to investigate the role of HO-1 in the neurotoxicity induced by the mitochondrial toxin 3-nitropropionic acid (3-NP) in primary cultures of cerebellar granule neurons (CGNs). Toxicity of 3-NP is associated with ROS production, and this metabolic toxin has been used to mimic pathological conditions such as Huntington's disease. We found that cell death caused by 3-NP exposure was exacerbated by inhibition of HO with tin mesoporphyrin (SnMP). In addition, HO-1 up-regulation induced by the exposure to cobalt protoporphyrin (CoPP) before the incubation with 3-NP, prevented the cell death and the increase in ROS induced by 3-NP. Interestingly, addition of SnMP to CoPP-pretreated CGNs exposed to 3-NP, abolished the protective effect of CoPP suggesting that HO activity was responsible for this protective effect. This was additionally supported by the fact that CORM-2, a CO-releasing molecule, and BR, were able to protect against cell death and the increase in ROS induced by 3-NP. Our data clearly show that HO-1 elicits in CGNs a neuroprotective action against the neurotoxicity of 3-NP and that CO and BR may be involved, at least in part, in this protective effect. The present results increase our knowledge about the role of HO-1 in neuropathological conditions. (C) 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.