This invention is a catheter-based device for generating an ultrasound excitation in biological tissue. Pulsed laser light is guided through an optical fiber to provide the energy for producing the acoustic vibrations. The optical energy is deposited in a water-based absorbing fluid, e.g. saline, thrombolytic agent, blood or thrombus, and generates an acoustic impulse in the fluid through thermoelastic and/or thermodynamic mechanisms. By pulsing the laser at a repetition rate (which may vary from 10 Hz to 100 kHz) an ultrasonic radiation field can be established locally in the medium. This method of producing ultrasonic vibrations can be used in vivo for the treatment of stroke-related conditions in humans, particularly for dissolving thrombus or treating vasospasm. The catheter can also incorporate thrombolytic drug treatments as an adjunct therapy and it can be operated in conjunction with ultrasonic detection equipment for imaging and feedback control and with optical sensors for characterization of thrombus type and consistency.