Conflicting data have emerged regarding the role of complement activation in the pathophysiology of cerebral ischemia. On the basis of considerable evidence implicating inflammatory mediators in the progression of neonatal brain injury, we evaluated the contribution of complement activation to cerebral hypoxic-ischemic (HI) injury in the neonatal rat. To elicit unilateral forebrain HI injury, 7-d-old rats underwent right carotid ligation followed by 1.5-2 hr of exposure to 8% oxygen. Using immunoprecipitation and Western blot assays, we determined that HI induces local complement cascade activation as early as 8 hr post-HI; there was an eightfold increase in the activation fragment inactivated C3b at 16 hr. With immunofluorescence assays and confocal microscopy, both C3 and C9 were localized to injured neurons 16 and 24 hr post-HI. To investigate the contribution of systemic complement to brain injury, we administered the complement-depleting agent cobra venom factor (CVF) 24 hr before HI lesioning and evaluated both acute HI-induced complement deposition and the extent of resulting tissue injury 5 d after lesioning. CVF depleted both systemic and brain C3 by the time of surgery and reduced infarct size. Analysis of lesioned, CVF-treated animals demonstrated minimal neuronal C3 deposition but no reduction in C9 deposition. C3-immunoreactive microglia were identified in injured areas. These results indicate that complement activation contributes to HI injury in neonatal rat brain, systemic administration of CVF does not eliminate complement deposition within injured brain, and microglia may represent an important local source of C3 after acute brain injury.