We have shown that 17beta-estradiol exerts profound protective effects against stroke-like ischemic injury in female rats. These effects are evident using physiological levels of estradiol replacement in ovariectomized rats and require hormone treatment prior to the time of injury. The protective actions of estradiol appear to be most prominent in the cerebral cortex, where cell death is not apparent until at least 4 h after the initiation of ischemic injury and where cell death is thought to be apoptotic in nature. Middle-aged rats remain equally responsive to the protective actions of estradiol. The maintenance of responsiveness of the cerebral cortex to the neuroprotective actions of estradiol was unexpected since responsiveness of the hypothalamus to estradiol decreases dramatically by the time animals are middle-aged. We believe that the protective actions of estradiol require the estrogen receptor-alpha, since estradiol does not protect in estrogen receptor-alpha knockout mice. We have also implemented a method of culturing cerebral cortical explants to assess the protective effects of estradiol in vitro. This model exhibits remarkable parallelisms with our in vivo model of brain injury. We have found that 17beta-estradiol decreases the extent of cell death and that this protective effect requires hormone pretreatment. Finally, 17alpha-estradiol, which does not interact effectively with the estrogen receptor, does not protect; and addition of ICI 182,780, an estrogen receptor antagonist, blocks the protective actions of estradiol. We have begun to explore the molecular and cellular mechanisms of estradiol-mediated protection. In summary, our findings demonstrate that estradiol exerts powerful protective effects both in vivo and in vitro and suggest that these actions are mediated by estrogen receptors.