The rationale for thrombolysis, the most promising pharmacological approach in acute ischaemic stroke, is centred on the principal cause of most ischaemic strokes: the thrombus that occludes the cerebral artery, and renders part of the brain ischaemic. The occluding thrombus is bound together within fibrin. Fibrinolysis acts by activation of plasminogen to plasmin; plasmin splits fibrinogen and fibrin and lyses the clot, which then allows reperfusion of the ischaemic brain. Thrombolytic agents include streptokinase (SK) and recombinant tissue-type plasminogen activator (rt-PA) amongst others under test or development. SK is nonfibrin-specific, has a longer half-life than tissue-type plasminogen activator (t-PA), prevents re-occlusion and is degraded enzymatically in the circulation. rt-PA is more fibrin-specific and clot-dissolving, and is metabolized during the first passage in the liver. In animal models of ischaemic stroke, the effects of rt-PA are remarkably consistent with the effects seen in human clinical trials. For clinical application, some outcome data from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews which includes all randomized evidence available on thrombolysis in man were used. Trials included tested urokinase, SK, rt-PA, pro-urokinase, or desmoteplase. The chief immediate hazard of thrombolytic therapy is fatal intracranial bleeding. However, despite the risk, the human trial data suggest the immediate hazards and the apparent substantial scope for net benefit of thrombolytic therapy given up to 6 h of acute ischaemic stroke. So far the fibrin-specific rt-PA is the only agent to be approved for use in stroke. This may be due to its short half-life and its absence of any specific amount of circulating fibrinogen degradation products, thereby leaving platelet function intact. The short half-life does not leave rt-PA without danger for haemorrhage after the infusion. Due to its fibrin-specificity, it can persist within a fibrin-rich clot for one or more days. The molecular mechanisms with regards to fibrin-specificity in thrombolytic agents should, if further studied, be addressed in within-trial comparisons. rt-PA has antigenic properties and although their long-term clinical relevance is unclear there should be surveillance for allergic reactions in relation to treatment. Although rt-PA is approved for use in selected patients, there is scope for benefit in a much wider variety of patients. A number of trials are underway to assess which additional patients - beyond the age and time limits of the current approval - might benefit, and how best to identify them.