Hypoosmolality and hyperosmolality are relatively common clinical problems. Many different factors contribute to the substantial morbidity and mortality known to occur during states of altered osmotic homeostasis. The brain is particularly vulnerable to disturbances of body fluid osmolality. The most serious complications are associated with pathological changes in brain volume: brain edema during hypoosmolar states and brain dehydration during hyperosmolar states. Studies in animals have elucidated many of the mechanisms involved with brain adaptation to osmotic stresses, and indicate that it is a complex process involving transient changes in water content and sustained changes in electrolyte and organic osmolyte contents. Appreciation of the nature of the adaptation process, and conversely the deadaptation processes that occur after recovery from hypoosmolality and hyperosmolality, enables a better understanding of the marked variations in neurological sequelae that characterize hyperosmolar and hypoosmolar states, and provides a basis for more rational therapies.