We examined whether 7-nitroindazole (7-NI), a putative inhibitor of neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS), decreases cerebral infarction 24 h after proximal middle cerebral artery (MCA) occlusion. In preliminary experiments, we determined that 7-NI (25, 50, and 100 mg/kg i.p.) decreased nitric oxide synthase (NOS) activity within cerebral cortex by 40-60% when measured up to 120 min, but not 240 min after administration. At 25 or 50 mg/kg, 7-NI did not alter the systemic arterial blood pressure or the dilation of pial arterioles after topical acetylcholine (10 and 100 microM). To examine the effect of 7-NI on infarct size, 55 Sprague-Dawley halothane-anesthetized rats were subjected to proximal MCA occlusion (modified Tamura method). Five minutes after occlusion, 7-NI (25 or 50 mg/kg i.p.) or vehicle was injected. Animals treated with 25 or 50 mg/kg showed 25 and 27% reductions in infarct volume, respectively. Coadministration of L-arginine (300 mg/kg i.p.) plus 7-NI (25 mg/kg i.p.) reversed the effect. If, indeed, the effects of 7-NI are mediated by inhibition of nNOS activity, these results suggest that enzymatic products of the neuronal isoform promote ischemic injury and that they do so at least within the first few hours after permanent occlusion. The results also emphasize the importance of developing strategies to selectively inhibit the neuronal isoform inasmuch as we observed previously that administering the less selective NOS inhibitor, N omega-nitro-L-arginine (L-NA), in the same model either caused no change or increased the volume of ischemic injury.