We studied the effects of varying degrees and durations of hypernatremia on the brain concentrations of organic compounds believed to be important, so-called "idiogenic" osmoles in rats by means of conventional biochemical assays, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and high-performance liquid chromatography. There were no changes in the concentrations of these osmoles (specifically myoinositol, sorbitol, betaine, glycerophosphorylcholine [GPC], phosphocreatine, glutamine, glutamate, and taurine) in rats with acute (2 h) hypernatremia (serum Na 194 +/- 5 meq/liter). With severe (serum Na 180 +/- 4 meq/liter) chronic (7 d) hypernatremia, the concentrations of each of these osmoles except sorbitol increased significantly: myoinositol (65%), betaine (54%), GPC (132%), phosphocreatine (73%), glutamine (143%), glutamate (84%), taurine (78%), and urea (191%). Together, these changes account for 35% of the change in total brain osmolality. With moderate (serum Na 159 +/- 3 meq/liter) hypernatremia, more modest but significant increases in the concentrations of each of these osmoles except betaine and sorbitol were noted. When rats with severe chronic hypernatremia were allowed to drink water freely, their serum sodium as well as the brain concentrations of all of these organic osmoles except myoinositol returned to normal within 2 d. It is concluded that: idiogenic osmoles play an important role in osmoregulation in the brain of rats subjected to hypernatremia; the development of these substances occur more slowly than changes in serum sodium; and the decrease in concentration of myoinositol occurs significantly more slowly than the decrease in serum sodium which occurs when animals are allowed free access to water. These observations may be relevant to the clinical management of patients with hypernatremia.