Spreading depression (SD) and the related hypoxic SD-like depolarization (HSD) are characterized by rapid and nearly complete depolarization of a sizable population of brain cells with massive redistribution of ions between intracellular and extracellular compartments, that evolves as a regenerative, "all-or-none" type process, and propagates slowly as a wave in brain tissue. This article reviews the characteristics of SD and HSD and the main hypotheses that have been proposed to explain them. Both SD and HSD are composites of concurrent processes. Antagonists of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) channels or voltage-gated Na(+) or certain types of Ca(2+) channels can postpone or mitigate SD or HSD, but it takes a combination of drugs blocking all known major inward currents to effectively prevent HSD. Recent computer simulation confirmed that SD can be produced by positive feedback achieved by increase of extracellular K(+) concentration that activates persistent inward currents which then activate K(+) channels and release more K(+). Any slowly inactivating voltage and/or K(+)-dependent inward current could generate SD-like depolarization, but ordinarily, it is brought about by the cooperative action of the persistent Na(+) current I(Na,P) plus NMDA receptor-controlled current. SD is ignited when the sum of persistent inward currents exceeds persistent outward currents so that total membrane current turns inward. The degree of depolarization is not determined by the number of channels available, but by the feedback that governs the SD process. Short bouts of SD and HSD are well tolerated, but prolonged depolarization results in lasting loss of neuron function. Irreversible damage can, however, be avoided if Ca(2+) influx into neurons is prevented.