We measured, in vivo, the local concentration of nitric oxide (NO) in cerebral tissue, during and after transient middle cerebral artery occlusion in the rat (n = 8). Baseline concentration of NO was < 10(-8) M; upon initiation of ischemia, NO concentration increased to approximately 10(-6) M and then declined. Reperfusion likewise stimulated an increase in NO concentration to above baseline level. Administration of N-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (n = 4), an inhibitor of nitric oxide synthase, before onset of ischemia, maintained NO at basal levels. Our data indicate that large increases in NO occur at onset of ischemia, which may affect tissue response to an ischemic insult.