The left and right neocortex of the brain has been shown to exert asymmetrical effects on the immune system. In the present study, we used a middle cerebral artery (MCA) occlusion model in Wistar rats to analyze the influence of unilateral CNS ischemia on spleen cell number and function. The occlusion time was 1 h, followed by reperfusion with survival for 0, 2, 7, 14, and 28 days. Changes in plasma norepinephrine levels were used as an index of peripheral sympathetic activity. Results showed that the total number of spleen cells significantly decreased after 2-28 days of survival in animals with cerebral ischemia compared to sham-operated controls. There was no change in the percentage of CD5(+)-CD4(+) T cells, MHC class II(+) cells, or ED1(+) macrophages. However, the percentage of CD5(+)-CD8(+) T cells decreased at 2 days, resulting in an increased CD4/CD8 ratio, and both parameters returned to control levels after 7 days. Mitogen-induced T and B lymphocyte proliferation increased after 0-28 days post-ischemia independently of the mitogen used. There was no difference in immune response or norepinephrine levels between left and right MCA occlusions. These results are consistent with the notion that cerebral ischemia induces mobilization of certain immune cells from the periphery to the brain, where they may contribute to the local inflammatory response. Additionally, the data indicate that cerebral ischemia is followed by a systemic activation of T and B lymphocytes. Absence of asymmetric effects of left versus right stroke, and failure to demonstrate any suppressive effects of left-sided lesions on lymphocyte proliferation, probably reflects the fact that these large cerebral ischemic lesions affect both cortical and subcortical areas.