Localised brain tissue damage activates surrounding astrocytes, which significantly influences subsequent long-term pathological processes. Most existing focal brain injury models in rodents employ craniotomy to localise mechanical insults. However, the craniotomy procedure itself induces gliosis. To investigate perilesional astrocyte activation under conditions in which the skull is intact, we created focal brain injuries using light exposure through a cranial window made by thinning the skull without inducing gliosis. The lesion size was maximal at ~ 12 h and showed substantial recovery over the subsequent 30 days. Two distinct types of perilesional reactive astrocyte, identified by GFAP upregulation and hypertrophy, were found. In proximal regions the reactive astrocytes proliferated and expressed nestin, whereas in regions distal to the injury core the astrocytes showed increased GFAP expression but did not proliferate, lacked nestin expression, and displayed different morphology. Simply making the window did not induce any of these changes. There were also significant numbers of neurons in the recovering cortical tissue. In the recovery region, reactive astrocytes radially extended processes which appeared to influence the shapes of neuronal nuclei. The proximal reactive astrocytes also formed a cell layer which appeared to serve as a protective barrier, blocking the spread of IgG deposition and migration of microglia from the lesion core to surrounding tissue. The recovery was preceded by perilesional accumulation of leukocytes expressing vascular endothelial growth factor. These results suggest that, under intact skull conditions, focal brain injury is followed by perilesional reactive astrocyte activities that foster cortical tissue protection and recovery.