BACKGROUND: During neurosurgical procedures, patients are often exposed to hypoxic and ischemic brain damage. Cerebral ischemia leads to neuronal cell death and eventually causes neurological impairments. Remifentanil is a new ultra-short acting phenylpiperidine opioid analgesic. In this study, we evaluated remifentanil to determine if it exerts an anti-apoptotic effect in the hippocampal dentate gyrus following transient global ischemia in gerbils. METHODS: Step-down avoidance task, terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) assay, and immunohistochemical staining for caspase-3 were performed. RESULTS: The numbers of TUNEL-positive cells and caspase-3-positive cells in the dentate gyrus were increased by ransient global ischemia. Latency in the step-down avoidance task was increased by transient global ischemia. Results revealed that apoptotic cell death in the dentate gyrus was increased significantly following transient global ischemia, resulting in memory impairment. However, treatment with remifentanil suppressed ischemia-induced apoptosis in the dentate gyrus, thereby alleviating the memory impairment that was induced by ischemic cerebral injury. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that remifentanil may exert a neuroprotective effect on ischemic brain damage during surgery.