Abstract Lidocaine is a local anesthetic and antiarrhythmic agent. Although clinical and experimental studies have shown that an antiarrhythmic dose of lidocaine can protect the brain from ischemic damage, the underlying mechanisms are unknown. In the present study, we examined whether lidocaine inhibits neuronal apoptosis in the penumbra in a rat model of transient focal cerebral ischemia. Male Wistar rats underwent a 90-min temporary occlusion of middle cerebral artery. Lidocaine was given as an i.v. bolus (1.5 mg/kg) followed by an i.v. infusion (2 mg/kg/h) for 180 min, starting 30 min before ischemia. Rats were killed and brain samples were collected at 4 and 24 h after ischemia. Apoptotic changes were evaluated by immunohistochemistry for cytochrome c release and caspase-3 activation and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) for DNA fragmentation. Cytochrome c release and caspase-3 activation were detected at 4 and 24 h after ischemia and DNA fragmentation was detected at 24 h. Double-labeling with NeuN, a neuronal marker, demonstrated that cytochrome c, caspase-3, and TUNEL were confined to neurons. Lidocaine reduced cytochrome c release and caspase-3 activation in the penumbra at 4 h and diminished DNA fragmentation in the penumbra at 24 h. Lidocaine treatment improved early electrophysiological recovery and reduced the size of the cortical infarct at 24 h, but had no significant effect on cerebral blood flow in either the penumbra or core during ischemia. These findings suggest that lidocaine attenuates apoptosis in the penumbra after transient focal cerebral ischemia. The infarct-reducing effects of lidocaine may be due, in part, to the inhibition of apoptotic cell death in the penumbra.