Growing evidence from in vitro studies supports that valproic acid (VPA), an anti-convulsant and mood-stabilizing drug, has neuroprotective effects. The present study investigated whether VPA reduces brain damage and improves functional outcome in a transient focal cerebral ischemia model of rats. Subcutaneous injection of VPA (300 mg/kg) immediately after ischemia followed by repeated injections every 12 h, was found to markedly decrease infarct size and reduce ischemia-induced neurological deficit scores measured at 24 and 48 h after ischemic onset. VPA treatment also suppressed ischemia-induced neuronal caspase-3 activation in the cerebral cortex. VPA treatments resulted in a time-dependent increase in acetylated histone H3 levels in the cortex and striatum of both ipsilateral and contralateral brain hemispheres of middle cerebral artery occlusion (MCAO) rats, as well as in these brain areas of normal, non-surgical rats, supporting the in vitro finding that VPA is a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor. Similarly, heat shock protein 70 (HSP70) levels were time-dependently up-regulated by VPA in the cortex and striatum of both ipsilateral and contralateral sides of MCAO rats and in these brain areas of normal rats. Altogether, our results demonstrate that VPA is neuroprotective in the cerebral ischemia model and suggest that the protection mechanisms may involve HDAC inhibition and HSP induction.