The mechanism by which intracerebral hemorrhage leads to the formation of brain edema is unknown. This study assesses the components of blood to determine if any are toxic to surrounding brain. Various solutions were infused stereotactically into the right basal ganglia of rats. The animals were sacrificed 24 hours later; brain edema and ion contents were measured. Whole blood caused an increase in brain water content and ion changes consistent with brain edema. Concentrated blood cells, serum from clotted blood, and plasma from unclotted blood all failed to provoke edema formation when infused directly into the brain. On the other hand, activation of the coagulation cascade by adding prothrombinase to plasma did produce brain edema. The edema response to whole blood could be prevented by adding a specific thrombin inhibitor, hirudin, to the injected blood. This study indicates that thrombin plays an important role in edema formation from an intracerebral blood clot.