In vitro studies suggest that adenosine may attenuate anoxic white matter damage as an intrinsic protective substance. The authors investigated ischemic alterations of purines in relation to tissue depolarization and extracellular calcium and amino acid concentrations in vivo using microdialysis and ion-selective electrodes in cortical gray and subcortical white matter of 10 cats during 120 minutes of global brain ischemia. Immediately on induction of ischemia, regional cerebral blood flow ceased in all cats in both gray and white matter. The direct current potential rapidly decreased, the decline being slower and shallower in white matter. Extracellular calcium levels decreased in gray matter. In contrast, they first increased in white matter and started to decrease below control levels only after approximately 30 minutes. Adenosine levels transiently increased in both tissue compartments; the peak was delayed by 30 minutes in white matter. Thereafter, levels declined faster in gray than in white matter and remained elevated in the latter tissue compartment. Inosine and hypoxanthine elevations were progressive in both regions but smaller in white matter. Levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, another putatively protective agent, steadily increased, starting immediately in gray matter and delayed by almost 1 hour in white matter. The delayed and prolonged accumulation of adenosine correlates with a slower adenosine triphosphate breakdown in white matter ischemia and may result in protection of white matter by suspending cellular calcium influx.