Endogenous adenosine released locally during cerebral ischemia is neuroprotective, and agents which decrease adenosine inactivation may potentiate its protective effects. The effects of 5'-deoxy-5-iodotubercidin (5'd-5IT), an inhibitor of the adenosine-catabolizing enzyme, adenosine kinase, were studied in male Wistar rats subjected to 2 h of transient middle cerebral artery occlusion. 5'd-5IT or the vehicle (10% DMSO in saline) was administered i.p. 30 min before, and 2 h and 6 h after the induction of middle cerebral artery occlusion. The infarct volume was determine using 2,3,5-triphenyltetrazolium chloride staining 48 h after middle cerebral artery occlusion. The infarct volume was significantly reduced in rats treated with 1.85 mg/kg x 3 (57% reduction, P < 0.001) or 1.0 mg/kg x 3 (34% reduction, P < 0.05), but not 0.3 mg/kg x 3 5'd-5IT compared to vehicle-treated rats. The reduction of infarct volume was accompanied by a significant improvement in behavioral measures of neurological deficit. These data further support a role of adenosine in neuroprotection and suggest that adenosine kinase inhibition may be a useful approach to the treatment of focal cerebral ischemia.