Developing oligodendrocytes (pre-OLs) are highly vulnerable to hypoxic-ischemic injury and associated excitotoxicity and oxidative stress. 17beta-Estradiol plays an important role in the development and function of the CNS and is neuroprotective. The sudden drop in circulating estrogen after birth may enhance the susceptibility of developing OLs to injury. Estrogen receptor (ER)-alpha and ER-beta are both expressed in OLs. We examined the effect of 17beta-estradiol on oxygen-glucose deprivation and oxidative stress-induced cell death in rat pre-OLs in vitro and on hypoxic-ischemic brain injury in vivo. Pre-OLs in culture were subjected to oxygen-glucose deprivation (OGD) or glutathione depletion in the presence or absence of 17beta-estradiol. LDH release, the Alamar blue assay, and phase-contrast microscopy were used to assess cell viability. Hypoxic-ischemic injury was generated in 6-day-old rats (P6) by unilateral carotid ligation and hypoxia (6% O(2) for 1 hr). Rat pups received one intraperitoneal injection of 300 or 600 microg/kg 17beta-estradiol or vehicle 12 hr prior to the surgical procedure. Injury was assessed by myelin basic protein (MBP) immunocytochemistry at P10. 17beta-Estradiol produced significant protection against OGD-induced cell death in primary OLs (EC(50) = 1.3 +/- 0.46 x 10(-9) M) and against oxidative stress. Moreover, 17beta-estradiol attenuated the loss of MBP labeling in P10 pups ipsilateral to the carotid ligation. These results suggest a potential role for estrogens in attenuation of hypoxic-ischemic and oxidative injury to developing OLs and in the prevention of periventricular leukomalacia.