Commercially available activated carbon (AC) powders from different precursor materials (peat, coconut shell, coal, and hardwood) were treated with ammonia gas at 700 C to improve their performance as oxygen reduction catalysts in neutral pH solutions used in microbial fuel cells (MFCs). The ammonia treated ACs exhibited better catalytic performance in rotating ring-disk electrode tests than their untreated precursors, with the bituminous based AC most improved, with an onset potential of Eonset = 0.12 V (untreated, Eonset = 0.08 V) and n = 3.9 electrons transferred in oxygen reduction (untreated, n = 3.6), and the hardwood based AC (treated, E onset = 0.03 V, n = 3.3; untreated, Eonset = -0.04 V, n = 3.0). Ammonia treatment decreased oxygen content by 29-58%, increased nitrogen content to 1.8 atomic %, and increased the basicity of the bituminous, peat, and hardwood ACs. The treated coal based AC cathodes had higher maximum power densities in MFCs (2450 ± 40 mW m-2) than the other AC cathodes or a Pt/C cathode (2100 ± 1 mW m-2). These results show that reduced oxygen abundance and increased nitrogen functionalities on the AC surface can increase catalytic performance for oxygen reduction in neutral media. © 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.