Xanthine oxidase activity in the rat brain was measured by means of high-performance liquid chromatography with electrochemical detection of uric acid. Cerebral ischemia was produced by a four-vessel occlusion method. In the control rat, the enzyme activity was 0.87 +/- 0.13 nmol/gm wet weight/min at 25 degrees C (mean +/- standard deviation), of which 92.4% was associated with the nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD)-dependent dehydrogenase form and only 7.6% with the oxygen-dependent superoxide-producing oxidase form. However, the ratio of the latter form increased to 43.7% after 30 minutes of global ischemia, despite the total xanthine oxidase activity remaining the same. Thus, it was revealed that uric acid can be synthesized in the rat brain and that cerebral ischemia induced the conversion of xanthine oxidase from an NAD-dependent dehydrogenase to an oxygen-dependent superoxide-producing oxidase. Although the xanthine oxidase pathway has been proposed as a source of oxygen-derived free radicals in various ischemic organs other than brain, the results of the present study suggest the involvement of the oxygen free radicals generated from this pathway in the pathogenesis of the ischemic injury of the rat brain.