Transcranial near-infrared laser therapy (NILT) has been investigated as a novel neuroprotective treatment for acute ischemic stroke (AIS), for approximately 10 years. Two clinical trials, NeuroThera Effectiveness and Safety Trial (NEST)-1 and NEST-2, have evaluated the use of NILT to promote clinical recovery in patients with AIS. This review covers preclinical, translational, and clinical studies documented during the period 1997-2010. The primary aim of this article is to detail the development profile of NILT to treat AIS. Secondly, insight into possible mechanisms involved in light therapy will be presented. Lastly, possible new directions that should be considered to improve the efficacy profile of NILT in AIS patients will be discussed. The use of NILT was advanced to clinical trials based upon extensive translational research using multiple species. NILT, which may promote functional and behavioral recovery via a mitochondrial mechanism and by enhancing cerebral blood flow, may eventually be established as an Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved treatment for stroke. The NEST-3 trial, which is the pivotal trial for FDA approval, should incorporate hypotheses derived from translational studies to ensure efficacy in patients. Future NILT studies should consider administration of a thrombolytic to enhance cerebral reperfusion alongside NILT neuroprotection.