Excitatory amino acids (EAAs) have been implicated in the pathophysiology of cellular injury after brain ischemia. Changes in extracellular levels of amino acids in rat cerebral cortex after permanent proximal middle cerebral artery (MCA) occlusion were examined using microdialysis. Significant increases were found in dialysate concentrations of glutamate, aspartate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) from the ischemic cortex during the first 90 min after MCA occlusion compared to pre-ischemic concentrations and contralateral hemispheric controls. Total tissue levels of these amino acids in the infarcted hemisphere 90 min after onset of ischemia were not different from the contralateral hemisphere. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the release of EAAs may contribute to tissue damage in focal cerebral ischemia.