Cytotoxic edema is a phenomenon of the ischemically damaged brain. In the present study we tested a histochemical method that detects this phenomenon based on potassium (K+) levels in the brain. In a first series focal cerebral ischemia was induced by arterial occlusion in 23 gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus). After survival times of 30, 60 and 120 min, the animals were killed and brain section histochemically stained for potassium and quantitatively evaluated with a morphometric method. The results were compared with those using physicochemical techniques. A distinct K+ depletion could be demonstrated in the area of the focal ischemia within a survival time of 30 min, the depletion growing therafter with increasing survival time. In a second series histochemical and chemical methods were used to study the stability of K+ levels in undamaged brains of 15 healthy rats during postmortem intervals of 2.5 and 5 h. Within these intervals K+ levels were clearly depleted, apparently as a result of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) diffusion. Even if neuronal injury can be demonstrated histochemically after very brief survival times of about 30 min, post-mortem storage of the cadavers rendered detection impossible due to electrolyte and water diffusion. In autoptic human cases, therefore, this technique is of no practical utility in detecting cytotoxic brain edema in postmortem tissue.