Nitric oxide synthase-containing neurons are presumed to be resistant to neurodegeneration and neurotoxicity, however this resistance has not been demonstrated after focal cerebral ischemia. We therefore measured the temporal profile of neuronal nitric oxide synthase (NOS-I) mRNA and immunoreactivity and NADPH-diaphorase reactivity over a one week period after permanent middle cerebral artery (MCA) occlusion in 48 male Wistar rats and compared these data to ischemic cell damage as evaluated on hematoxylin and eosin (H & E) stained sections by light microscopy. NOS-I mRNA increased as early as 15 min after MCA occlusion in the ipsilateral striatum and maximal expression of NOS-I was found in the ipsilateral cortex and striatum 1 h after MCA occlusion. The numbers of NOS-I-containing neurons in the ipsilateral cortex and striatum were significantly greater (P < 0.05) than NOS-I-containing neurons in the contralateral hemisphere at 2-48 h after the onset of ischemia. The number of NOS-I-containing neurons peaked at 4 h after MCA occlusion. Neurons exhibited shrinkage or were swollen at 1 to 4 h after MCA occlusion. At 24-48 h after ischemia, neurons in the ischemia lesion appeared to be eosinophilic or ghost like on H & E stained sections. However, some of these neurons retained morphological integrity on the NOS-I immunohistochemical sections. At 168 h after ischemia, all neurons within the lesion appeared necrotic on H & E stained sections; however, scatterred neurons expressed NOS-I and NADPH-diaphorase. The rapid upregulation of NOS-I and mRNA in the ischemic lesion suggests that NOS-I is involved in focal cerebral ischemic injury; the expression of NOS-I by neurons that retain their morphological structure in the area of the infarct suggests that NOS-I-containing neurons are more resistant to the ischemic insult. Our data also indicate a close association of NOS-I immunoreactivity and NADPH-diaphorase reactivity in ischemic brain. © 1994.