Diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance (MR) images from rats during acute cerebral ischemia induced by middle cerebral artery occlusion were analyzed for correspondence with changes in brain water, cation concentrations, and Na+,K(+)-ATPase activity measured in vitro after 30 or 60 min of ischemia. In the ischemic hemisphere, signal intensity was increased at 30 min (p < 0.05 vs contralateral hemisphere) and further increased at 60 min. Na+,K(+)-ATPase activity was 34% lower in ischemic cortex and 40% lower in ischemic basal ganglia after 30 min (p < 0.05), but water content and Na+ and K+ concentrations were not significantly different between hemispheres. After 60 min, water content and Na+ concentration were increased, and both Na+,K(+)-ATPase activity and K+ concentration were decreased in the ischemic hemisphere (p < 0.05). These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the early onset of signal hyperintensity in diffusion-weighted MR images may reflect cellular edema associated with impaired membrane pump function. Early in vivo detection and localization of potentially reversible ischemic cerebral edema may have important research and clinical applications.