In ischaemic stroke, expansion of the infarct core occurs at the expense of surrounding hypoxic, metabolically compromised tissue over a period of 24 h or more in a considerable proportion of patients. It is uncertain whether hypoxic tissue observed at later times after stroke onset retains the potential for survival or whether such survival has an impact on functional outcome. These factors may determine the effectiveness of therapeutic strategies aimed at salvaging this tissue. We tested the hypotheses that metabolically compromised hypoxic tissue observed within 48 h after onset of ischaemic stroke retains the potential for spontaneous survival and that the impact of such survival on functional outcome is time dependent. Consecutive patients presenting within 48 h of ischaemic stroke were studied with [(18)F]fluoromisonidazole, a ligand binding to hypoxic but viable tissue, and PET. Subjects were grouped into two time epochs, </=12 and >12 h, based on the interval from stroke onset to the time of tracer injection, and had infarct volumes measured on CT/MRI at 7 days (n = 60). The total ischaemic volume (TIV) and the proportion of the TIV that spontaneously survived (surviving hypoxic volume ratio, SHVR) were defined from the co-registered CT/MRI images. These volumetric measures were correlated with neurological outcome assessed at day 7-10 by percentage change in the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale (DeltaNIHSS), and at 3 months by Barthel Index (BI) and modified Rankin Score (mRS). Of 66 patients investigated, hypoxic tissue occurred in 33 and outcome data was available in 27. Hypoxic tissue constituted >20% of the TIV in 60% of studies </=12 h and 16% >12 h. The spontaneously surviving proportion of the TIV (median 6.9%) or hypoxic tissue (median 45.9%) was not significantly different in patient subgroups studied </=12 or >12 h after stroke onset. Spontaneous survival of hypoxic tissue (surviving hypoxic volume ratio) was associated with improved neurological outcome in both time epochs: </=12 h, DeltaNIHSS (r = 0.85, P < 0.01), day 90 BI (r = 0.86, P < 0.01) and day 90 mRS (r = -0.89, P < 0.01); >12 h, DeltaNIHSS (r = 0.59, P < 0.01) and day 90 mRS (r = -0.46, P < 0.05). The finding that similar proportions of hypoxic tissue survived spontaneously within each time epoch suggests that its fate is not predetermined. The favourable neurological outcome associated with spontaneous survival of hypoxic tissue, even 12-48 h after stroke onset, suggests that the volume of hypoxic tissue that progressed to infarction may represent a valuable target for therapeutic intervention.