The sensitivity of diffusion‐weighted MRI was compared to that of T2‐weighted MRI following temporary middle cerebral artery occlusion (MCA‐0) for 33 min followed by 4 h of reperfusion in rats. Diffusion‐weighted spin‐echo images using strong gradients (b value of 1413 s/mm2) demonstrated a significant increase in signal intensity in ischemic regions as early as 14 min after onset of ischemia in comparison to the normal, contralateral hemisphere (p < 0.05). This hyperintensity returned to baseline levels during reperfusion. T2‐weighted images showed no evidence of brain injury during the temporary occlusion. In three rats subjected to permanent MCA‐0, diffusion‐weighted MRI demonstrated an increased signal intensity on the first image following occlusion and continued to increase during the 4‐h observation period. T2‐weighted images failed to demonstrate significant injury until approximately 2 h after MCA‐O. Signal intensity ratios of ischemic to normal tissues were greater in the diffusion‐weighted images than in the T2‐weighted MR images at all time points (p < 0.05). Close anatomical correlation was found between the early and sustained increase in diffusion‐weighted MRI signal intensity and localization of infarcts seen on post‐mortem histopathology. © 1991 Academic Press. Inc.