Global cerebral ischemia, such as occurs following cardiac arrest, can lead to oxidative stress, hippocampal neuronal cell death, and cognitive defects. The current study examined the potential beneficial effect and underlying mechanisms of post-treatment with the naturally occurring isoflavonic phytoestrogen, genistein, which has been implicated to attenuate oxidative stress. Genistein (1 mg kg−1) was administered i.v. 5 min after reperfusion in rats subjected to four-vessel global cerebral ischemia (GCI). The results revealed that genistein exerted significant neuroprotection of hippocampal CA1 neurons following GCI, as evidenced by an increase in NeuN-positive neurons and the decrease in TUNEL-positive neurons. Furthermore, genistein treatment also resulted in significantly improved spatial learning and memory as compared to vehicle control animals. The beneficial effects of genistein appear to be mediated by an increase of phosphorylation/activation of eNOS, with subsequent activation of the antioxidant/detoxification Nrf2/Keap1 transcription system. Along these lines, genistein increased keap1 S-nitrosylation, with a corresponding nuclear accumulation and enhanced DNA binding activity of Nrf2. Genistein also enhanced levels of the Nrf2 downstream antioxidant protein, heme oxygenase (HO)-1, as compared to vehicle control groups. In accordance with its induction of Nrf2 activation, genistein exerted a robust attenuation of oxidative DNA damage and lipid peroxidative damage in hippocampal CA1 neurons after GCI, as measured by immunofluorescence staining of the oxidative stress markers, 8-hydroxy-2-deoxyguanosine (8-OHdG) and 4-Hydroxynonenal (4-HNE). Interestingly, the aforementioned effects of genistein were abolished by pretreatment with L-NAME, an inhibitor of eNOS activation. In conclusion, the results of the study demonstrate that low dose genistein can exert significant antioxidant, neuroprotective, and cognitive-enhancing effects in the hippocampal CA1 region following GCI. Mechanistically, the beneficial effects of genistein appear to be mediated by enhanced eNOS phosphorylation/activation and nitric oxide (NO)-mediated thiol modification of Keap1, with subsequent upregulation of the Nrf2/HO-1 antioxidative signaling pathway and a resultant attenuation of oxidative stress. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.