Transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) has been shown to be an injury-related peptide growth factor within the mammalian central nervous system. We tested whether TGF-beta 1 has the capacity to protect rat neocortical neurons against excitotoxic damage in vitro and mouse neocortex against ischemic injury in vivo. After 14 days in vitro, cultured neurons from rat cerebral cortex were exposed to 1 mM L-glutamate in serum-free culture medium. The cultures received TGF-beta 1 immediately after the addition of glutamate. Eighteen hours later, the cell viability of the cultures was determined using trypan blue exclusion. TGF-beta 1 (1-10 ng/ml) significantly reduced the excitotoxic neuronal damage in a concentration-dependent manner. In vivo, male NMRI mice were subjected to a permanent occlusion of the left middle cerebral artery by microbipolar electrocoagulation. After 48 h, the animals received a transcardiac injection of carbon black. The area of ischemia (devoid of carbon) was restricted to the neocortex and its size was determined planimetrically by means of an image-analyzing system. The treatment with TGF-beta 1 (1 microgram/kg i.c.v.) at 6, 4, or 2 h prior to vessel occlusion reduced the area of ischemia by 5.3, 10.0, and 9.6%, respectively. The effect of the treatment with TGF-beta 1 was statistically significant (p < 0.05 by two-way ANOVA). The present in vitro and in vivo data suggest that TGF-beta 1 has the capacity to diminish the deleterious consequences of an excitotoxic or ischemic insult.