We determined that treatment of immature rats with allopurinol at 15 min after cerebral hypoxia-ischemia reduces brain damage. Seven-d postnatal rats were subjected to right common carotid artery ligation followed by 2.25 h of hypoxia (8% O2). At 15 min of recovery in room air, the rat pups received either allopurinol (135 mg/kg s.c.) or saline. Some of the rats (n = 65) were killed at 42 h of recovery for measurement of cerebral hemispheric water content. Other animals (n = 63) were killed at 30 d for morphologic assessment of the severity of damage. In separate rats, we measured the levels of allopurinol and its metabolites in serum and in the brain around the time of peak serum levels. We also determined the effect of allopurinol on rat pup body temperature. Allopurinol reduced the increase in right hemisphere water content and markedly reduced atrophy. No cavitary lesions were seen in the 31 allopurinol-treated rats, whereas 15 of 32 saline-treated rats had cavitary cerebral lesions. Histologic examination confirmed that the allopurinol-treated rats had less brain injury. Serum allopurinol and oxypurinol peaked between 0.5 and 1 h after allopurinol injection. Their peak serum concentrations at 0.75 h postinjection combined was between 360 and 510 microM. Allopurinol did not lower rectal temperature more than 0.04 degrees C. In conclusion, high-dose allopurinol administered at 15 min of recovery from cerebral hypoxia-ischemia markedly reduces both acute brain edema and long-term cerebral injury in immature rats.