Spreading depression (SD) and ischemia are different pathophysiological events but have similar characteristics. This study investigated whether similarity exists in the light scattering (LS) properties during SD and ischemia in rat neocortical slices. SD was induced by injection of K(+) while ischemia was simulated by removing oxygen and glucose. LS was simultaneously recorded with changes in extracellular direct current (DC) potential and extracellular space (ECS) volume. LS was measured using a photon counting fiber optic system and the ECS volume change was determined by measuring the ECS concentration of tetramethylammonium (TMA(+)). Slices maintained in normal artificial cerebrospinal fluid (ACSF) showed a consistent LS increase during SD, but exhibited two different LS behaviors during 6 min of ischemia. In eight slices, LS decreased and remained so until the end of the ischemic challenge. In another 10 slices, LS diminished initially but, after 2 min, suddenly reversed sign, accompanied by a rapid negative shift in extracellular DC potential. When 50 or 91% of Cl(-) in the ACSF was replaced by membrane-permeable propionate, LS retained its increase during SD, but always showed the sudden LS reversal during ischemia. In contrast, when Cl(-) was substituted with membrane-impermeant methylsulfate, the SD-induced LS increase was replaced by an LS decrease, and the sudden LS reversal during ischemia was absent. While the LS signal showed different characteristics during SD and ischemia, the DC potential always presented negative shifts and the ECS volume always exhibited similar decreases. These results suggest that the polarity of the LS signal is determined by the competition of at least two factors: cell swelling and anion influx.