Objectives: The ‘hyperdense MCA sign’ refers to an appearance of increased attenuation of the proximal middle cerebral artery (MCA) that is often associated with thrombosis of the M1 MCA segment a nd may be the only diagnostic feature on computed tomography early after ischaemic stroke. False positives are recognized, and correct recognition of this sign has, therefore, assumed greater importance with the advent of thrombolytic therapy for stroke. We sought to define objective criteria for hyperdensity of the MCA. Methods: Brain computed tomographs obtained by a standard protocol in a neuroradiology department were analyzed by a single observer. All consecutive scans reported as exhibiting a hyperdense MCA were compared to controls reported as having normal scans. Ovoid regions of interest were placed over the vessels and cerebral cortices, and the attenuation in Hounsfield units (HU) measured. Absolute attenuation and ratios of one side to the other were compared. Results: MCA attenuation was unrelated to age in cases (n = 18) and controls (n = 80). The mean MCA attenuation was greater in the affected MCA of cases as compared with controls [54.0 HU (99% confidence interval CI 46.7-61.2) vs. 41.3 HU (99% CI 39.7-43.0); p < 0.00001]. Cases were subdivided into true and false positives by the ratio of denser:less dense MCA (within or without the 95% prediction interval for controls). In all true positives, the MCA ratio was > 1.2. 9 of 10 true positives had acute ischaemic stroke; 1 patient had herpes simplex encephalitis, but had MCA attenuation within the 95% CI for controls. False positives had mature cerebral infarction or non-ischaemic pathologies. The ratio of MCA attenuation to adjacent cerebral cortex was significantly higher in both true and false positives than in controls. Conclusions: Hyperdense MCAs associated with acute ischaemic stroke can be distinguished from normal vessels and false positives by measurement of absolute attenuation of affected and normal vessels: an absolute density of >43 HU and a MCA ratio of >1.2 defined hyperdensity and excluded all other pathologies. Confirmation in other centres is required. Copyright (C) 2000 S. Karger AG, Basel.