Permanent occlusion of the middle cerebral artery in rats was used to assess the effects of focal ischemia on the expression of members of the bcl-2 family which have been implicated in the regulation of programmed cell death. Intraluminal occlusion of one middle cerebral artery for 6 h resulted in histologically detectable brain damage within the ipsilateral caudate putamen, basolateral cortex and parts of the thalamus. In the infarcted basolateral cortex and thalamus fragmentation of DNA was detected in many nuclei using in-situ end-labeling of DNA breaks by terminal transferase, whereas only scattered labeled nuclei were visible in the infarcted caudate putamen. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed activation of c-Fos in the infarcted cortex and thalamus and in the non-infarcted cingulate cortex as has been shown by others. A decrease in immunoreactivity for Bcl-2, and Bcl-X and an increase in immunostaining for Bax was observed exclusively in neurons within the ischemic cortex and thalamus. Within the infarcted caudate putamen, however, protein levels of all bcl-2 family members declined and c-Fos remained absent. By reverse transcription and polymerase chain reaction it was demonstrated that levels of bcl-2 mRNA markedly decreased in the ipsilateral hemisphere, whereas the amount of bax mRNA was elevated. These findings suggest that a shift in the ratio of cell death repressor Bcl-2 to cell death effector Bax and a concomitant activation of c-Fos may contribute to neuronal apoptosis in the infarcted thalamus and cortex.