Near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of cytochrome oxygenation could be a valuable technique to monitor cerebral intraneuronal oxygen delivery during cardiopulmonary bypass. However, the validity of the cytochrome signal has been questioned as it could easily be overwhelmed by the Hb signal. Five- to six-week-old control piglets (n = 5) underwent cardiopulmonary bypass at 37 degrees C. Study animals (n = 10) received 100 mg/kg of sodium cyanide to uncouple cytochrome from HB: Hematocrit was then decreased in steps of 5% from 35 to 5% with crystalloid hemodilution. In study piglets, the initiation of cardiopulmonary bypass was associated with oxygenated Hb increasing from 0 to 62.9 +/- 25.6 microM times the differential path-length factor, and oxidized cytochrome a,a3 increasing to 1.9 +/- 1.8 microM times the differential path-length factor. Cyanide caused oxygenated Hb to increase further to 132.3 +/- 48.9 microM times the differential path-length factor, and oxidized cytochrome c decreased to -7.0 +/- 2.6 microM times the differential path-length factor as anticipated, confirming uncoupling of electron transport. However, hemodilution subsequently resulted in linear decreases in oxidized cytochrome a,a3 (F = 8.57, p < 0.001) suggesting important cross-talk between the Hb and cytochrome signals as cytochrome is only intracellular. In control piglets, tissue oxygenation index showed a positive correlation with pump flow (r = 0.986, p = 0.013). The cytochrome signal as presently measured by near-infrared spectroscopy is highly dependent on hematocrit.