Hystidyl-proline [cyclo(His-Pro)] is an endogenous cyclic dipeptide produced by the cleavage of thyrotropin releasing hormone. Previous studies have shown that cyclo(His-Pro) protects against oxidative stress, although the underlying mechanism has remained elusive. Here, we addressed this issue and found that cyclo(His-Pro) triggered nuclear accumulation of NF-E2-related factor-2 (Nrf2), a transcription factor that up-regulates antioxidant-/electrophile-responsive element (ARE-EpRE)-related genes, in PC12 cells. Cyclo(His-Pro) attenuated reactive oxygen species production, and prevented glutathione depletion caused by glutamate, rotenone, paraquat and β-amyloid treatment. Moreover, real-time PCR analyses revealed that cyclo(His-Pro) induced the expression of a number of ARE-related genes and protected cells against hydrogen peroxide-mediated apoptotic death. Furthermore, these effects were abolished by RNA interference-mediated Nrf2 knockdown. Finally, pharmacological inhibition of p-38 MAPK partially prevented both cyclo(His-Pro)-mediated Nrf2 activation and cellular protection. These results suggest that the signalling mechanism responsible for the cytoprotective actions of cyclo(His-Pro) would involve p-38 MAPK activation leading to Nrf2-mediated up-regulation of antioxidant cellular defence.