Diffusion-weighted single voxel experiments conducted at b-values up to 1 x 10(4) smm-2 yielded biexponential signal attenuation curves for both normal and ischemic brain. The relative fractions of the rapidly and slowly decaying components (f1, f2) are f1 = 0.80 +/- 0.02, f2 = 0.17 +/- 0.02 in healthy adult rat brain and f1 = 0.90 +/- 0.02, f2 = 0.11 +/- 0.01 in normal neonatal rat brain, whereas the corresponding values for the postmortem situation are f1 = 0.69 +/- 0.02, f2 = 0.33 +/- 0.02. It is demonstrated that the changes in f1 and f2 occur simultaneously to those in the extracellular and intracellular space fractions (fex, f(in)) during: (i) cell swelling after total circulatory arrest, and (ii) the recovery from N-methyl-D-aspartate induced excitotoxic brain edema evoked by MK-801, as measured by changes in the electrical impedance. Possible reasons for the discrepancy between the estimated magnitude components and the physiological values are presented and evaluated. Implications of the biexponential signal attenuation curves for diffusion-weighted imaging experiments are discussed.