Brain ischemia is a process of delayed neuronal cell death, not an instantaneous event. The concept of neuroprotection is based on this principle. Diminished cerebral blood flow initiates a series of events (the “ischemic cascade”) that lead to cell destruction. This ischemic cascade is akin to a spreading epidemic starting from a hypothesized core of ischemia and radiating outward. If intervention occurs early, the process may be halted.
Interventions have been directed toward salvaging the ischemic penumbra. Hypothermia decreases the size of the ischemic insult in both anecdotal clinical and laboratory reports. In addition, a wide variety of agents have been shown to reduce infant volume in animal models. Pharmacologic interventions that involve thrombolysis, calcium channel blockade, and cell membrane receptor antagonism have been studied and have been found to be beneficial in animal cortical stroke models. Human trials of neuroprotective therapies have been disappointing. Other than thrombolytics, no agents, have shown an unequivocal benefit. The future of neuroprotection will require a logical extension of what has been learned in the laboratory and previous human trials. A sensible approach to the use of multiple-agent cocktails used in combination with thrombolytics is likely to offer the highest chance for benefit.