Cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (cdk5) is a serine/threonine kinase activated by associating with its neuron-specific activators p35 and p39. Analysis of cdk5(-/-) and p35(-/-) mice has demonstrated that both cdk5 and p35 are essential for neuronal migration, axon pathfinding and the laminar configuration of the cerebral cortex, suggesting that the cdk5-p35 complex may play a role in neuron survival. However, the targets of cdk5 that regulate neuron survival are unknown. Here, we show that cdk5 directly phosphorylates c-Jun N-terminal kinase 3 (JNK3) on Thr131 and inhibits its kinase activity, leading to reduced c-Jun phosphorylation. Expression of cdk5 and p35 in HEK293T cells inhibits c-Jun phosphorylation induced by UV irradiation. These effects can be restored by expression of a catalytically inactive mutant form of cdk5. Moreover, cdk5-deficient cultured cortical neurons exhibit increased sensitivity to apoptotic stimuli, as well as elevated JNK3 activity and c-Jun phosphorylation. Taken together, these findings show that cdk5 may exert its role as a key element by negatively regulating the c-Jun N-terminal kinase/stress-activated protein kinase signaling pathway during neuronal apoptosis.