The transcription factor nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2) coordinates expression of genes required for free radical scavenging, detoxification of xenobiotics, and maintenance of redox potential. Previously, activation of this pleiotropic response was neuroprotective in cell culture models that simulate components of stroke damage. However, the role of Nrf2 in limiting stroke damage in vivo remained unclear. We report that Nrf2 activation protects the brain from cerebral ischemia in vivo. Acute (1-3 d) intracerebroventricular or intraperitoneal pretreatment with tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ), an Nrf2 activity inducer, reduced cortical damage and sensorimotor deficit at 24 h and even 1 month after ischemia-reperfusion in rats. Cortical glutathione levels robustly increased with tBHQ administration to rats and Nrf2-expressing mice, but not Nrf2(-/-) mice. Basal and inducible activities of antioxidant/detoxification enzymes in Nrf2(-/-) mice were reduced when compared with Nrf2(+/+) controls. Interestingly, larger infarcts were observed in Nrf2(-/-) mice at 7 d after stroke, but not at 24 h, suggesting that Nrf2 may play a role in shaping the penumbra well after the onset of ischemia. Neuronal death caused by a "penumbral" model of stroke, using intracortical endothelin-1 microinjection, was attenuated by tBHQ administration to Nrf2(+/+), but not to Nrf2(-/-) mice, confirming the Nrf2-specific action of tBHQ in vivo. We conclude that Nrf2 plays a role in modulating ischemic injury in vivo. Accordingly, Nrf2 activation by small molecule inducers may be a practical preventative treatment for stroke-prone patients.