Lysosomal proteases, although tightly regulated under physiological conditions, are known to contribute to cell injury after various forms of tissue ischemia have occurred. Because cathepsin B is a prominent lysosomal protease found in brain parenchyma, the authors hypothesized that it may contribute to neuronal cell death after focal cerebral ischemia. The authors measured the expression and spatial distribution of cathepsin B within the ischemic brain in 43 animals by means of immunohistochemical analysis in a rat model of transient middle cerebral artery (MCA) occlusion. Cathepsin B activity was also measured within specific ischemic brain regions by using an in vitro assay (22 animals). In addition, the authors tested the therapeutic effect of preischemic intraventricular administration of stefin A, a cysteine protease inhibitor, on the volume of cerebral infarction after transient MCA occlusion (15 animals). Increased cathepsin B immunoreactivity was detected exclusively within the ischemic neurons after 2 hours of reperfusion following a 2-hour MCA occlusion. Cathepsin B immunolocalization in the ischemic region decreased by 24 hours of reperfusion, but then increased by 48 hours of reperfusion because the infarct was infiltrated by inflammatory cells. Increased immunolocalization of cathepsin B in the inflammatory cells located in the necrotic infarct core continued through 7 days of reperfusion. Cathepsin B enzymatic activity was significantly increased in the ischemic tissue at 2, 8, and 48 hours, but not at 24 hours of reperfusion after 2 hours of MCA occlusion. Continuous intraventricular infusion of stefin A, before 2 hours of MCA occlusion (15 animals), significantly reduced infarct volume compared with control animals (12 animals): the percentage of hemispheric infarct volume was 20+/-3.9 compared with 33+/-3.5 (standard error of the mean; p = 0.025). These data indicate that neuronal cathepsin B undergoes increased expression and activation within 2 hours of reperfusion after a 2-hour MCA occlusion and may be a mechanism contributing to neuronal cell death. Intraventricular infusion of stefin A, an inhibitor of cathepsin B, significantly reduces cerebral infarct volume in rats.