The regional evolution of brain infarction was studied in Wistar rats submitted to remotely controlled thread occlusion of the middle cerebral artery. Occlusion was performed in the magnet of an NMR tomography system to allow continuous recording of diffusion-weighted images. After 30 min (n = 6) or 2 h (n = 9), cerebral blood flow was measured by [14C] iodoantipyrine autoradiography while the regional distribution of ATP, glucose, lactate, and pH was imaged using pictorial bioluminescence and fluoroscopic methods. In diffusion-weighted images, the hemispheric lesion area (HLA) at the level of caudate-putamen amounted to 54.2 +/- 10.9% after 30 min and to 67.0 +/- 5.9% after 2 h vascular occlusion. These areas corresponded to the regions exhibiting tissue acidosis (60.8 +/- 9.3% and 70.4 +/- 4.5%), but were clearly larger than those in which ATP was depleted (22.3 +/- 20.8% and 49.6 +/- 12.9% after 30 min and 2 h, respectively). The threshold of blood flow for the increase of signal intensity in diffusion-weighted images increased between 30 min and 2 h occlusion from 34 to 41 ml/100 g per minute, the threshold of acidosis from 40 to 47 ml/100 g per minute, and the threshold for ATP depletion from 13 to 19 ml/100 g per minute. Our study demonstrates that diffusion-weighted imaging detects both the core and the penumbra of the evolving infarction but is not able to differentiate between the two parts. It further shows that the ischemic lesion grows during the initial 2 h of vascular occlusion, and that the size of the infarct core increases more rapidly than that of the penumbra.