We examined the effect of the neuroprotective and neuroreparative agent citicoline on the growth of cerebral ischemic lesions in a double-blind placebo-controlled study involving patients with acute ischemic stroke using diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (DWI). Patients with acute ischemic stroke symptom onset 24 hours or less before the start of treatment, National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) scores of 5 or higher, and lesions of 1 to 120 cc in cerebral gray matter by DWI were enrolled. DWI, T2-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), perfusion-weighted MRI, and magnetic resonance angiography were obtained at baseline, week 1, and week 12. Citicoline (500 mg/day) was administered orally for 6 weeks, and patients were followed for 12 weeks. The primary assessment was progression of ischemic lesion volume from baseline to 12 weeks as measured by MRI. A total of 100 patients entered the study. The primary MRI analysis included 40 placebo-treated patients and 41 citicoline-treated patients with both baseline and week 12 MRI data and failed to demonstrate a significant difference in lesion volume change from baseline to week 12. From baseline to week 12, ischemic lesion volume [all values mean (SE)] expanded by 180% (107) among placebo-treated patients compared with 34% (19) among citicoline-treated patients. In a secondary analysis, lesion volume decreased from week 1 to week 12 by 6.9 cc (2.8) on placebo versus 17.2 cc (2.6) on citicoline. Baseline variables that were predictors of change in lesion size over 12 weeks were the volume of hypoperfusion (strongest association), baseline NIHSS score, lesion volume on DWI, arterial lesion by magnetic resonance angiography, and categorized elapsed time (< or =12 or >12 hours) from stroke onset to first dose. A marked association between lesion volume reduction and improvement of NIHSS score by seven or more points was observed. Significant correlations between lesion volumes and clinical measures were found, replicating values reported in the literature for smaller case series. We observed a reduction in lesion volume growth from baseline to week 12 with citicoline treatment, with a significantly greater reduction in volume from week 1 to week 12 with citicoline. We found a significant inverse relationship between lesion volume change over 12 weeks as measured by MRI and clinical outcome for ischemic stroke. This relationship supports the role of DWI as a surrogate marker of clinically meaningful lesion progression in stroke clinical trials. The hypothesis that citicoline reduces lesion growth and improves clinical outcome will be tested further.