The treatment of cerebral ischemia remains a formidable challenge in neuroscience today. Mild hypothermia has been shown to be an effective neuroprotective agent. Despite the great volume of published research, the therapeutic window of mild hypothermia has not been precisely elucidated. Using a model of reversible focal cerebral ischemia in the rat, this study was undertaken to define the optimal duration of hypothermic application and the maximal postischemic delay in hypothermic application before which optimal therapeutic effect is noted. Focal ischemia was induced by temporary occlusion of the middle cerebral artery and both carotid arteries in Sprague-Dawley rats for a period of 3 hours. In the first study, mild hypothermia (32-33 degrees C) was induced at the onset of ischemia in four groups of rats for varying lengths of time ranging from 1 to 4 hours. The animals were killed after 3 days, and their brains were sliced and stained. Infarcted volume was measured using a computerized image analyzer. The infarct volumes were 211 +/- 4.5, 214.2 +/- 8.0, 199.5 +/- 5.3, 171.3 +/- 9.1, and 169.8 +/- 6.5 mm3 (mean +/- standard error of the mean, n = 6 per group) for the control, 1-hour, 2-hour, 3-hour, and 4-hour groups, respectively. On the basis of the results from the above study, a 3-hour duration of hypothermia was then applied to animals at 0, 15, 30, or 45 minutes after the ischemic onset. The volumes of infarction for these four respective groups were: 171.3 +/- 9.1, 173 +/- 5.7, 179.3 +/- 5.2, and 206.2 +/- 8.4 mm3 (mean +/- standard error of the mean, n = 6 per group). These results demonstrated that optimal duration of mild hypothermia was at least 3 hours (P < 0.001) when applied within the first 30 minutes after the onset of ischemia (P < 0.001).