We prospectively tested the hypothesis that early recovery after ischemic stroke depends on the ultimate survival of functionally impaired, critically ischemic (i.e., "penumbral") tissue. From a series of 26 consecutive patients studied with positron emission tomography within 18 hours of first-ever stroke in the middle cerebral artery territory, all 11 survivors to the 2-month end point who exhibited increased oxygen extraction fraction were declared eligible. The positron emission tomographic images were compared to ultimate infarction defined by computed tomography performed during the chronic stage. The penumbra (operationally defined by increased oxygen extraction fraction and divided outcome despite uniformly reduced cerebral blood flow) was individually detected in 10 of the 11 patients; cerebral blood flow ranged from 7 to 17 ml/100 gm x min, consistent with that found in monkey studies. The volume of the penumbra that escaped infarction was highly correlated with neurological recovery (p < 0.04 to p < 0.0001, depending on the scale used). This longitudinal study is the first to characterize the penumbra in humans and to document one mechanism strongly influencing recovery; the surviving penumbra may offer opportunities for secondary perifocal neuronal reorganization. Therapeutic measures to prevent infarction of the penumbra (up to 16 hours in this series) may have reduced residual neurological impairment. Mapping the extent of the penumbra, according to prospective criteria, may allow one to predict each patient's potential for recovery, and to select the most appropriate candidates for therapeutic trials.