Spreading depression (SD) and related phenomena have been implicated in hypoxic-ischemic injury. In such settings, SD occurs in the presence of marked extracellular acidosis. SD itself can also generate changes in extracellular pH (pH(o)), including a pronounced early alkaline shift. In a hippocampal slice model, we investigated the effect of interstitial acidosis on the generation and propagation of SD in the CA1 stratum radiatum. In addition, a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor (benzolamide) was used to decrease buffering of the alkaline shift to investigate its role in the modulation of SD. pH(o) was lowered by a decrease in saline HCO(3)(-) (from 26 to 13 to 6.5 mM at 5% CO(2)), or by an increase in the CO(2) content (from 5 to 15% in 26 mM HCO(3)(-)). Recordings with pH microelectrodes revealed respective pHo values of 7.23 +/- 0. 13, 6.95 +/- 0.10, 6.67 +/- 0.09, and 6.97 +/- 0.12. The overall effect of acidosis was an increase in the threshold for SD induction, a decrease in velocity, and a shortened SD duration. This inhibition was most pronounced at the lowest pH(o) (in 6.5 mM HCO(3)(-)) where SD was often blocked. The effects of acidosis were reversible on return to control saline. Benzolamide (10 microM) caused an approximate doubling of the early alkaline shift to an amplitude of 0.3-0.4 U pH. The amplified alkalosis was associated with an increased duration and/or increased velocity of the wave. These effects were most pronounced in acidic media (13 mM HCO(3)(-)/5% CO(2)) where benzolamide increased the SD duration by 55 +/- 32%. The initial velocity (including time for induction) and propagation velocity (measured between distal electrodes) were enhanced by 35 +/- 25 and 26 +/- 16%, respectively. Measurements of [Ca(2+)](o) demonstrated an increase in duration of the Ca(2+) transient when the alkaline shift was amplified by benzolamide. The augmentation of SD caused by benzolamide was blocked in media containing the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist DL-2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid. These data indicate that the induction and propagation of SD is inhibited by a fall in baseline pH characteristic of ischemic conditions and that the early alkaline shift can remove this inhibition by relieving the proton block on NMDA receptors. Under ischemic conditions, the intrinsic alkalosis may therefore enable SD and thereby contribute to NMDA receptor-mediated injury.