Glycerol, the end product of phospholipid degradation, was measured in cat brains under pathophysiological conditions known to cause activation of lipolysis, namely, bicuculline-induced seizures, permanent focal cerebral ischemia (2 hr of middle cerebral artery occlusion), and global cerebral ischemia (15 min of complete cerebral ischemia with or without 2 hr of recirculation). In addition, ATP and lactate were measured in order to correlate the activation of lipid degradation with disturbances in the energy-producing metabolism. A highly significant increase in the tissue glycerol content was observed after 1 hr of bicuculline-induced seizures (from 0.29 +/- 0.07 mumol/g in control animals to 1.30 +/- 0.06 mumol/g in seizure animals; P less than 0.001) or after 15 min of complete cerebral ischemia (from 0.29 +/- 0.07 to 1.17 +/- 0.14 mumol/g; P less than 0.01). Furthermore, a close correlation was found between the increase in glycerol and the increase in lactate or decrease in ATP after permanent focal ischemia. In contrast, following recirculation after complete cerebral ischemia, restoration of the energy pool did not lead to a reduction of the glycerol formed during ischemia. It is concluded that glycerol is a useful indicator of lipid degradation under pathological conditions. Since glycerol formed during vascular occlusion is trapped in brain cells, presumably owing to low glycerol kinase activity, it can be used as a stable postischemic indicator of ischemia-induced lipid degradation.