Brain ischemia initiates a complex cascade of metabolic events, several of which involve the generation of nitrogen and oxygen free radicals. These free radicals and related reactive chemical species mediate much of damage that occurs after transient brain ischemia, and in the penumbral region of infarcts caused by permanent ischemia. Nitric oxide, a water- and lipid-soluble free radical, is generated by the action of nitric oxide synthases. Ischemia causes a surge in nitric oxide synthase 1 (NOS 1) activity in neurons and, possibly, glia, increased NOS 3 activity in vascular endothelium, and later an increase in NOS 2 activity in a range of cells including infiltrating neutrophils and macrophages, activated microglia and astrocytes. The effects of ischemia on the activity of NOS 1, a Ca2+-dependent enzyme, are thought to be secondary to reversal of glutamate reuptake at synapses, activation of NMDA receptors, and resulting elevation of intracellular Ca2+. The up-regulation of NOS 2 activity is mediated by transcriptional inducers. In the context of brain ischemia, the activity of NOS 1 and NOS 2 is broadly deleterious, and their inhibition or inactivation is neuroprotective. However, the production of nitric oxide in blood vessels by NOS 3, which, like NOS 1, is Ca2+-dependent, causes vasodilatation and improves blood flow in the penumbral region of brain infarcts. In addition to causing the synthesis of nitric oxide, brain ischemia leads to the generation of superoxide, through the action of nitric oxide synthases, xanthine oxidase, leakage from the mitochondrial electron transport chain, and other mechanisms. Nitric oxide and superoxide are themselves highly reactive but can also combine to form a highly toxic anion, peroxynitrite. The toxicity of the free radicals and peroxynitrite results from their modification of macromolecules, especially DNA, and from the resulting induction of apoptotic and necrotic pathways. The mode of cell death that prevails probably depends on the severity and precise nature of the ischemic injury. Recent studies have emphasized the role of peroxynitrite in causing single-strand breaks in DNA, which activate the DNA repair protein poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP). This catalyzes the cleavage and thereby the consumption of NAD+, the source of energy for many vital cellular processes. Over-activation of PARP, with resulting depletion of NAD+, has been shown to make a major contribution to brain damage after transient focal ischemia in experimental animals. Neuronal accumulation of poly(ADP-ribose), the end-product of PARP activity has been demonstrated after brain ischemia in man. Several therapeutic strategies have been used to try to prevent oxidative damage and its consequences after brain ischemia in man. Although some of the drugs used in early studies were ineffective or had unacceptable side effects, other trials with antioxidant drugs have proven highly encouraging. The findings in recent animal studies are likely to lead to a range of further pharmacological strategies to limit brain injury in stroke patients.