Estrogen is neuroprotective against ischemia in both in vivo and in vitro injury models. Because of the promising preclinical data on neuroprotection, the Women's Estrogen for Stroke Trial was initiated. The outcomes from this trial were, however, unsuccessful and questions emerged about the safety of chronic estrogen treatment in women. In contrast to the chronic estrogen treatment strategy, the present study aims to investigate: (1) the neuroprotective efficacy of single estrogen pretreatment/preconditioning; and (2) the existence of a similarity between estrogen- and ischemic preconditioning-induced neuroprotection against cerebral ischemia. The efficacy of estrogen was tested in an in vitro model of cerebral ischemia using hippocampal organotypic slice culture system. The hippocampal organotypic slice cultures were generated from female neonatal (9-11 days old) Sprague-Dawley rats. The slices were exposed to estradiol-17beta (0.5, 1, 5 nM) for various durations (1, 2 or 4 h) 48 h prior to ischemia (40 min of oxygen-glucose deprivation). For ischemic preconditioning, slices were exposed to sublethal oxygen-glucose deprivation (15 min), 48 h prior to lethal oxygen-glucose deprivation. Quantification of cell death in hippocampal CA1 region was conducted by using propidium iodide fluorescence staining technique. Results demonstrated that estrogen preconditioning significantly protects the hippocampal CA1 region against ischemia (P<0.001) and mimicked ischemic preconditioning-induced neuroprotection. The propidium iodide fluorescence values of estrogen preconditioning, ischemic preconditioning and ischemia groups were 21+/-2 (mean+/-S.E.M.) (1 nM; 2 h; n=15), 18+/-2 (5 nM; 4 h; n=12), 32+/-3 (n=8), 65+/-3 (n=27), respectively. Further, estrogen preconditioning initiated a calcium-mediated signaling pathway leading to protection of CA1 neurons against ischemia. Future investigations in estrogen preconditioning may suggest new estrogen regimens that avoid potential side effects of chronic estrogen treatment for stroke patients.