Focal brain ischemia induced in rats by occlusion of an intracranial artery is a widely used paradigm of human brain infarct. Details of the structural changes that develop in either the human or the rat brain at various times after occlusion of an intracranial artery are incompletely characterized. We studied, in 48 adult Wistar rats, structural alterations involving the cerebral hemisphere ipsilateral to an arterial occlusion, at intervals ranging from 30 min to 7 days. Microscopic changes developed over time in separate areas of the corresponding cerebral hemisphere in a predictable pattern, appearing as small lesions in the preoptic area (30 minutes), enlarging to involve the striatum, and finally involving the cerebral cortex. Two types of neuronal responses were noted according to the time elapsed; acute changes (up to 6 hours) included scalloping, shrinkage, and swelling, whereas delayed changes (eosinophilia and karyolysis) appeared later (> or = 12 hours). Three types of astrocytic responses were noted. 1) Cytoplasmic disintegration occurred in the preoptic area at a time and in a place where neurons appeared minimally injured. 2) Nuclear and cytoplasmic swelling were prominent responses in the caudoputamen and cerebral cortex at a time when neurons showed minimal alterations. 3) Increased astrocytic glial fibrillary acidic protein reactivity was noted at the interface between the lesion and the surrounding brain tissue after 4 to 6 hours. The gross pattern of the brain lesion and the maturation of neuronal changes typical of a brain infarct have a predictable progression. Focal brain ischemia of up to 6-hour duration does not induce coagulation necrosis.