A variety of recent studies suggest a role for both inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta), and apoptosis in ischemic brain injury. Because IL-1 beta converting enzyme (ICE) is required for the conversion of proIL-1 beta to its biologically active form, and has homology with proteins that regulate apoptosis in invertebrates, we studied the effect of cerebral ischemia on brain injury in mutant mice deficient in the ICE gene (ICE knockout [KO] mice). Focal cerebral ischemia, produced by occlusion of the middle cerebral artery, resulted in brain edema (increased water and sodium content) at 4 hours and a histologically defined brain lesion at 24 hours. Both of these markers of brain injury were significantly reduced in the ICE KO mice as compared to wild-type C57BL/6 mice. Regional cerebral blood flow, determined using the flow tracer, N-isopropyl [methyl 1,3-(14)C] p-iodoamphetamine (14C-IMP), was similar in the two strains of mice, indicating that the reduced brain injury in the KO mice was not a result of a lesser degree of ischemia. These data show that ICE contributes to the development of ischemic brain damage, and that it plays a role at an early time in the pathologic process. Although the mechanism of this effect is uncertain, our results suggest that pharmacologic inhibition of ICE may be a useful treatment for stroke.