Poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase (PARP, EC 188.8.131.52), an abundant nuclear protein activated by DNA nicks, mediates cell death in vitro by nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) depletion after exposure to nitric oxide. The authors examined whether genetic deletion of PARP (PARP null mice) or its pharmacologic inhibition by 3-aminobenzamide (3-AB) attenuates tissue injury after transient cerebral ischemia. Twenty-two hours after reperfusion following 2 hours of filamentous middle cerebral artery occlusion, ischemic injury was decreased in PARP-/- and PARP+/- mice compared with PARP+/+ litter mates, and also was attenuated in 129/SV wild-type mice after 3-AB treatment compared with controls. Infarct sparing was accompanied by functional recovery in PARP-/- and 3-AB-treated mice. Increased poly(ADP-ribose) immunostaining observed in ischemic cell nuclei 5 minutes after reperfusion was reduced by 3-AB treatment. Levels of NAD--the substrate of PARP--were reduced 2 hours after reperfusion and were 35% of contralateral levels at 24 hours. The decreases were attenuated in PARP-/- mice and in 3-AB-treated animals. Poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase cleavage by caspase-3 (CPP-32) has been proposed as an important step in apoptotic cell death. Markers of apoptosis, such as oligonucleosomal DNA damage, total DNA fragmentation, and the density of terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick-end-labelled (TUNEL +) cells, however, did not differ in ischemic brain tissue of PARP-/- mice or in 3-AB-treated animals versus controls, although there were differences in the number of TUNEL-stained cells reflecting the decrease in infarct size. Thus, ischemic brain injury activates PARP and contributes to cell death most likely by NAD depletion and energy failure, although the authors have not excluded a role for PARP in apoptotic cell death at earlier or later stages in ischemic cell death. Inhibitors of PARP activation could provide a potential therapy in acute stroke.