The objective of this study was to examine the effects of hypoxia, glutamate, and beta-blockers on the electrical activities of retinal ganglion cells. Single-unit extracellular and whole-cell voltage clamp recording techniques were used to record electrical activities from ganglion cells in the tiger salamander retina. This was performed under physiologic conditions, hypoxia, or elevated exogenous or endogenous glutamate levels. Light-evoked spike activities, glutamate-induced currents, and voltage-gated sodium and calcium currents were measured in the presence of the beta-1 selective antagonist betaxolol or the nonselective antagonist timolol. Hypoxia resulted in suppressing or blocking the OFF responses in the majority of ON-OFF ganglion cells tested, whereas the ON responses were only slightly affected. The presence of increased glutamate had similar findings and demonstrated an increase in the spontaneous firing rate of retinal ganglion cells. Betaxolol (2-50 microM) reduced the rate of spontaneous firing of retinal ganglion cells induced by glutamate. At 2 to 50 microM, betaxolol reversibly reduced the voltage-gated sodium currents and calcium currents in retinal ganglion cells. Timolol (up to 100 microM) did not demonstrate any detectable action on these currents. The physiologic responses of retinal ganglion cells to hypoxia or elevated glutamate levels in this animal model appear to be very similar. Although short-term exposure to hypoxia and glutamate used in this study exerts reversible actions on ganglion cells and does not induce permanent cell damage, such initial physiologic actions are likely to be precursors of permanent cell damage. Thus, hypoxia and elevated glutamate levels in the retina may represent a final pathway in diseases affecting retinal ganglion cells, such as glaucoma. Similar damage could result from different factors, such as decreased perfusion-induced ischemia or anomalous neuronal processing of glutamate. Betaxolol exerts its primary neuronal actions on retinal ganglion cells. It reversibly blocked voltage-gated calcium current and reduced the spontaneous firing rate by suppressing glutamate-gated currents and sodium currents in ganglion cells. These actions may protect ganglion cells from damage caused by ischemia or elevated glutamate levels.