This study was undertaken to determine the minimum CBF and CMRO2 required by the human brain to maintain normal function and viability for more than a few hours. Positron emission tomography (PET) was used to perform regional measurements in 50 subjects with varying degrees of cerebral ischemia but no evidence of infarction. There were 24 normal subjects, 24 subjects with arteriographic evidence of vascular disease of the carotid system, and two subjects with reversible ischemic neurological deficits due to cerebral vasospasm. Minimum values found in the 48 subjects with normal neurological function were 19 ml/100 g-min for regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) and 1.3 ml/100 g-min for regional cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen (rCMRO2). Minimum values for all 50 subjects with viable cerebral tissue were 15 ml/100 g-min for rCBF and 1.3 ml/100 g-min for rCMRO2. Comparison of these measurements with values from 20 areas of established cerebral infarction in 10 subjects demonstrated that 80% (16/20) of infarcted regions had rCMRO2 values below the lower normal limit of 1.3 ml/100 g-min. Measurements of rCBF, regional cerebral blood volume, and oxygen extraction fraction were less useful for distinguishing viable from infarcted tissue. These data indicate that quantitative regional measurements of rCMRO2 with PET accurately distinguish viable from nonviable cerebral tissue and may be useful in the prospective identification of patients with reversible ischemia.