Diffusion-weighted (DWI), dynamic contrast-enhanced (perfusion imaging), and conventional spin-echo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were applied to characterize the pathophysiology of cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT) in the rat. We induced CVT by rostral and caudal ligation of the superior sagittal sinus (SSS) and injection of a thrombogenic cephalin suspension. The resulting pathology was monitored in an acute and long-term study group. Evans blue and hematoxylin-eosin staining was performed for comparison with MRI data. A subgroup of animals was treated with i.v. tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA). Successful thrombosis of the SSS was confirmed by macropathology or histopathology in all rats. Parenchymal lesions as shown by MRI, however, were present only in animals with additional involvement of cortical cerebral veins (11 of 18 rats). The early pathology was clearly detected with the DWI. The apparent diffusion coefficient declined to 56 +/- 7% of control value at 0.5 h and slowly increased to 84 +/- 8% by 48 h. Perfusion imaging showed parasagittal perfusion deficits. Treatment with t-PA partially resolved the hyperintensity on DWI. Evidence of blood-brain-barrier disruption was observed 2 to 3 h after induction of CVT. In conclusion, experimental CVT is characterized by early cytotoxic edema closely followed by vasogenic edema. The t-PA treatment partially reversed the DWI signal changes consistent with regional tissue recovery, as shown by histopathology. These results encourage the use of cytoprotective drugs in addition to anticoagulant or thrombolytic therapy.