Intracerebral hemorrhage occurs in tumors, stroke and head trauma. Proteolysis of the extracellular matrix around cerebral capillaries by naturally occurring mammalian 72-kDa type IV collagenase may initiate this pathologic event. To investigate this hypothesis adult rats underwent intracerebral injection of type IV collagenase purified from human melanoma cells. Histologically, at 4 h there was perivascular cellular infiltration with hemorrhage, and by 24 h there was infarction with necrosis, edema and hemorrhage. Ultrastructurally, the basal lamina of endothelial cells was disrupted at 2 h. Brain uptake of [14C]dextran and [3H]sucrose increased after intracerebral injection of type IV collagenase compared to controls (P less than 0.0001). Tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-2 (TIMP-2) reduced the tracer uptake (P less than 0.02). Metalloproteinase inhibitors reduce extracellular matrix proteolysis and protect the blood-brain barrier.