Riluzole, a glutamate antagonist, has been shown to be efficacious in the treatment of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), allowing prolonged survival and time to tracheostomy. The efficacy of riluzole in thought to result from reduced glutamate excitotoxicity on motor neurons of patients with ALS, but this has never been demonstrated directly in vivo. N-acetylaspartate (NAA), a compound that is readily measured in vivo using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, can be used as a surrogate marker for neuronal loss or sublethal injury. To determine whether riluzole reverses sublethal corticomotoneuron damage in patients with ALS we measured NAA/creatine (Cr) relative intensity ratios in the motor cortex before and after treatment with riluzole 50 mg bid. After 3 weeks of riluzole therapy in 11 patients NAA/Cr increased from 2.14 +/- 0.26 to 2.27 +/- 0.24 (p = 0.044), whereas, in 12 untreated patients NAA/Cr decreased from 2.17 +/- 0.20 to 2.08 +/- 0.20 (p = 0.099). Thus the change in NAA/Cr between the treated and untreated groups was 0.22 +/- 0.095 (p = 0.008). The magnitude of increase in NAA/Cr in those treated was not correlated with age, sex, duration of treatment or disease, the presence of probable or definite upper motor neuron (UMN) signs, bulbar features, or pre-treatment NAA/Cr. We conclude that magnetic resonance spectroscopy can provide a novel surrogate measure of neuronal integrity that demonstrates reversal of sublethal UMN injury in patients with ALS within weeks of initiating riluzole therapy.