We have considered the extracellular serine protease thrombin and its receptor as endogenous mediators of neuronal protection against brain ischemia. Exposure of gerbils to prior mild ischemic insults, here two relatively short-lasting occlusions (2 min) of both common carotid arteries applied at 1-day intervals 2 days before a severe occlusion (6 min), caused a robust ischemic tolerance of hippocampal CA1 neurons. This resistance was impaired if the specific thrombin inhibitor hirudin was injected intracerebroventricularly before each short-lasting insult. Thus, efficient native neuroprotective mechanisms exist and endogenous thrombin seems to be involved therein. In vitro experiments using organotypic slice cultures of rat hippocampus revealed that thrombin can have protective but also deleterious effects on hippocampal CA1 neurons. Low concentrations of thrombin (50 pM, 0.01 unit/ml) or of a synthetic thrombin receptor agonist (10 μM) induced significant neuroprotection against experimental ischemia. In contrast, 50 nM (10 units/ml) thrombin decreased further the reduced neuronal survival that follows the deprivation of oxygen and glucose, and 500 nM even caused neuronal cell death by itself. Degenerative thrombin actions also might be relevant in vivo, because hirudin increased the number of surviving neurons when applied before a 6-min occlusion. Among the thrombin concentrations tested, 50 pM induced intracellular Ca2+ spikes in fura-2-loaded CA1 neurons whereas higher concentrations caused a sustained Ca2+ elevation. Thus, distinct Ca2+ signals may define whether or not thrombin initiates protection. Taken together, in vivo and in vitro data suggest that thrombin can determine neuronal cell death or survival after brain ischemia.