Recent advances in magnetic resonance (MR) imaging and MR spectroscopy (MRS) allow the noninvasive in vivo study of a variety of anatomical, physiological, and biochemical alterations that may occur in different cerebral pathologies. The authors have investigated the use of MR imaging and MRS to monitor the evolution of experimental focal cerebral ischemia in rats. Permanent focal cerebral ischemia was induced in 36 rats, and 12 normal rats were used as a control group. Changes in high-energy phosphate metabolites were followed in vivo using MRS during the 1st hour and at 3 and 6 hours after ischemic insult. Changes in vivo MR images were evaluated at 1, 3, 6, 12, and 24 hours after ischemic insult. Significant decreases (p < 0.05) in phosphocreatine/inorganic phosphate ratios and intracellular pH values occurred immediately after the induction of ischemia. The presence of an infarcted area seen on MR images was a constant finding at 3 hours after ischemic insult, and was well defined and localized at 12 and 24 hours. The location of areas of infarction seen on MR images correlated well with areas identified histopathologically. The T1 and T2 MR relaxation times were significantly increased 3 hours after ischemic insult and remained prolonged for at least 24 hours. The results show that MR imaging is a sensitive method to measure cerebral infarction, and that MRS is a sensitive measure of changes that occur in the early phases of ischemia, perhaps when cellular changes may still be reversible. At 3 and 6 hours after the ischemic insult, however, 31P-MRS spectra may appear to be 'normal' despite the presence of well-documented areas of infarction.