The precise mechanisms that underlie acute changes in tissue water diffusion following cerebral ischemia or related insults such as glutamate exposure remain unexplained, but it has been suggested that these may be caused by cell swelling due to water uptake. This study was undertaken to compare the changes observed in diffusion-weighted MR images with changes in the cellular volume measured by electrical impedance in a model of N-methyl-D-aspartate-induced brain injury in perinatal rats. The results show that the temporal course of the intensity changes in the diffusion-weighted images parallelled the progressive shrinkage of the extracellular space measured from the electrical impedance. After administration of the N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonist MK-801 the signal enhancement in the images was reversed, which paralleled the normalization of the extracellular space observed by the impedance measurements. It was estimated that the extracellular space decreased from 24 to 12% while the apparent diffusion coefficient of water decreased from 0.89 x 10(-9) in normal tissue to 0.42 x 10(-9) m2/s in tissue exposed to N-methyl-D-aspartate. These data indicate that changes in tissue water diffusion are related to changes in cell volume.