Cerebral ischemia leads to cognitive decline and neuronal damage in the hippocampus. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) play an important role in the neuronal loss after cerebral ischemia and reperfusion injury. Carnosine has both antioxidant and neuroprotective effects against ROS. In the present study, the effects of carnosine on oxidative stress, apoptotic neuronal cell death and spatial memory following transient cerebral ischemia in rats were investigated. Transient ischemia was induced by occlusion of right common carotid artery of rats for 30 min and reperfusion for 24 h or 1 week. Rats received intraperitoneal injection of 250 mg/kg carnosine or saline 30 min prior to experiment. Determination of antioxidant enzyme activities was performed spectrophotometrically. To detect apoptotic cells, TUNEL staining was performed using an In Situ Cell Death Detection Kit. Carnosine treatment elicited a significant decrease in lipid peroxidation and increase in antioxidant enzyme activities in ischemic rat brains. The number of TUNEL-positive cells was decreased significantly in carnosine-treated group when compared with the ischemia-induction group. Carnosine treatment did not provide significant protection from ischemia induced deficits in spatial learning. The results show that carnosine is effective as a prophylactic treatment for brain tissue when it is administered before ischemia without affecting spatial memory.