Focal ischemia in the parietal cortex of the rat results in massive neuronal death in the infarct zone and penumbra between 12 hours and 6 days after photothrombosis. To examine a possible role of Bcl-2 family proteins in this process of cell death, we investigated their expression by immunoblot assays and immunocytochemistry, and correlated expression patterns with TUNEL as well as morphological signs indicative of apoptosis. In the center of the lesion Bax immunostaining was increased in many degenerating neurons between 4 hours and 3 days after the induction of photothrombosis. At all time points examined, Bcl-2 and Bcl-X protein levels were markedly reduced in injured neurons as compared to the unlesioned side. At the border of the ischemic lesion, two areas were distinguished: 1 - 2 days after induction of photothrombosis, pyknotic cells located immediately adjacent to the lesion core displayed nuclear Bcl-X and Bax immunoreactivity. In contrast, large, morphologically intact neurons located more towards the healthy brain parenchyma displayed an increase in cytoplasmic Bcl-2 and Bcl-X proteins. Double staining for each of the Bcl-2 family proteins and TUNEL revealed that DNA strand breaks and nuclear fragmentation seen in cells located in the lesion core were often associated with increased levels of Bax, but not with elevated Bcl-2 or Bcl-X protein levels, suggesting a role for Bax in the induction of apoptotic death in these cells. The upregulation of Bcl-2 and Bcl-X expression in surviving neurons close to the penumbra might reflect an active survival mechanism that protects these neurons from cell death following a sublethal insult.