The purpose of the present study was to test whether kava extract and its constituents kawain, dihydrokawain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin and yangonin provide protection against ischemic brain damage. To this end, we used a model of focal cerebral ischemia in mice and rats. Ischemia was induced by microbipolar coagulation of the left middle cerebral artery (MCA). To quantify the size of the lesion in mice, the area of the infarct on the brain surface was assessed planimetrically 48 h after MCA occlusion by transcardial perfusion of carbon black. In the rat model infarct volume was determined 48 h after MCA occlusion by planimetric analysis and subsequent integration of the infarct areas on serial coronal slices. Compounds were administered i.p., except the kava extract, which was administered orally. The effects of the kava extract and its constituents were compared with those produced by the typical anticonvulsant, memantine. The kava extract, methysticin and dihydromethysticin produced effects similar to those of the reference substance memantine. The kava extract (150 mg/kg, 1 h before ischemia) diminished the infarct area (P less than 0.05) in mouse brains and the infarct volume (P less than 0.05) in rat brains. Methysticin, dihydromethysticin (both 10 and 30 mg/kg, 15 min before ischemia) and memantine (20 mg/kg, 30 min before ischemia) significantly reduced the infarct area in mouse brains. All other compounds failed to produce a beneficial effect on the infarct area in mouse brains. In conclusion, the kava extract exhibited neuroprotective activity, which was probably mediated by its constituents methysticin and dihydromethysticin.