Systemic inflammatory events, such as infection, increase the risk of stroke and are associated with worse outcome, but the mediators of this clinically important effect are unknown. Our aim here was to elucidate mechanisms contributing to the detrimental effects of systemic inflammation on mild ischemic brain injury in mice. Systemic inflammation was induced in mice by peripheral interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) challenge and focal cerebral ischemia by transient middle cerebral artery occlusion (MCAo). Systemic inflammation caused an alteration in the kinetics of blood-brain barrier (BBB) disruption through conversion of a transient to a sustained disruption of the tight junction protein, claudin-5, and also markedly exacerbated disruption to the cerebrovascular basal lamina protein, collagen-IV. These alterations were associated with a systemic inflammation-induced increase in neurovascular gelatinolytic activity that was mediated by a fivefold increase in neutrophil-derived matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9) in the brains of IL-1 beta-challenged mice after MCAo. Specific inhibition of MMP-9 abrogated the effects of systemic inflammation on the sustained but not the acute disruption of claudin-5, which was associated with phosphorylation of cerebrovascular myosin light chain. MMP-9 inhibition also attenuated the deleterious impact of systemic inflammation on brain damage, edema, neurological deficit, and incidence of hemorrhagic transformation. These data indicate that a transformation from transient to sustained BBB disruption caused by enhanced neutrophil-derived neurovascular MMP-9 activity is a critical mechanism underlying the exacerbation of ischemic brain injury by systemic inflammation. These mechanisms may contribute to the poor clinical outcome in stroke patients presenting with antecedent infection.