Glutathione is a central component in the antioxidant defences of cells. We have recently reported an early and selective loss of total (reduced plus oxidised) glutathione from mitochondria isolated from rat brain following occlusion of the middle cerebral artery. This mitochondrial glutathione depletion showed an apparent association with the tissue damage that developed during subsequent reperfusion, suggesting that it could be an important determinant of susceptibility to cell loss. In the present study, we have investigated whether in vivo treatment with glutathione ethyl ester can modulate mitochondrial glutathione in the brain and whether this treatment can influence the response to focal ischemia. In further support of our previous findings, middle cerebral artery occlusion caused a duration-dependent partial loss of mitochondrial glutathione. Bilateral injections of glutathione ethyl ester immediately prior to induction of unilateral focal ischemia resulted in a substantial increase in glutathione in mitochondria from the striatum of both the non-ischemic hemisphere (190% of saline-treated controls) and the ischemic hemisphere (240% of controls) at 2h after arterial occlusion. Total tissue glutathione was not affected by the ester treatment at this time. A smaller increase in mitochondrial glutathione was observed at 3h of occlusion in the non-ischemic striatum following ester treatment but at this time point glutathione was not significantly altered in mitochondria from the ischemic hemisphere. Pre-ischemic treatment with glutathione ester did not significantly change the volume of tissue infarction assessed at 48 h following ischemia for 2 or 3h. These studies demonstrate that glutathione ethyl ester is a highly effective modulator of the mitochondrial glutathione pool in the intact brain and provides a useful means for further investigating the role of this antioxidant in the development of tissue damage in ischemia and other brain disorders.