The ischemic penumbra is defined as tissue with flow within the thresholds for maintenance of function and of morphologic integrity. Penumbra tissue has the potential for recovery and therefore is the target for interventional therapy in acute ischemic stroke. The identification of the penumbra necessitates measuring flow reduced less than the functional threshold and differentiating between morphologic integrity and damage. This can be achieved by multitracer positron emission tomography (PET) and perfusion-weighted (PW) and diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (DW-MRI) in experimental models, in which the recovery of critically perfused tissue or its conversion to infarction was documented in repeat studies. Neuroimaging modalities applied in patients with acute ischemic stroke--multitracer PET, PW- and DW-MRI, single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), perfusion, and Xe-enhanced computed tomography (CT)-- often cannot reliably identify penumbra tissue: multitracer studies for the assessment of flow and irreversible metabolic damage usually cannot be performed in the clinical setting; CT and MRI do not reliably detect irreversible damage in the first hours after stroke, and even DW-MRI may be misleading in some cases: determinations of perfusion alone yield a poor estimate of the state of the tissue as long as the time course of changes is not known in individual cases. Therefore, the range of flow values in ischemic tissue found later, either within or outside the infarct, was rather broad. New tracers--for example, receptor ligands or hypoxia markers--might improve the identification of penumbra tissue in the future. Despite these methodologic limitations, the validity of the concept of the penumbra was proven in several therapeutic studies in which thrombolytic treatment reversed critical ischemia and decreased the volume of final infarcts. Such neuroimaging findings might serve as surrogate targets in the selection of other therapeutic strategies for large clinical trials.