Transient arrest of the cerebral blood circulation results in neuronal cell death in selectively vulnerable regions of the rat brain. To elucidate further the involvement of glial cells in this pathology, we have studied the temporal and spatial distribution pattern of activated microglial cells in several regions of the ischemic rat brain. Transient global ischemia was produced in rats by 30 min of a four-vessel occlusion. Survival times were 1, 3, and 7 days after the ischemic injury. The microglial reaction was studied immunocytochemically using several monoclonal antibodies, e.g., against CR3 complement receptor and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) antigens. Two recently produced monoclonal antibodies against rat microglial cells, designated MUC 101 and 102, were also used to identify microglial cells. Following ischemia, the microglial reaction was correlated with the development of neuronal damage. The earliest presence of activated microglial cells was observed in the dorsolateral striatum, the CA1 area, and the dentate hilus of the dorsal hippocampus. However, the microglial reaction was not confined to areas showing selective neuronal damage, but also occurred in regions that are rather resistant to ischemia, such as the CA3 area. Particularly in the frontoparietal cortex, the appearance of MHC class II-positive microglial cells provided an early indication of the subsequent distribution pattern of neuronal damage. The microglial reaction would thus seem to be an early, sensitive, and reliable marker for the occurrence of neuronal damage in ischemia.