This study was undertaken to clarify whether seizures in the newborn cause damage to the healthy brain and, more specifically, to determine the extent to which seizures may contribute to the brain-damaging effects of hypoxia-ischemia (HI). Seizures were induced in 10-d-old rat pups with kainic acid (KA). Seizure duration was determined electrographically. HI was induced by common carotid artery ligation followed by exposure to 8% oxygen for either 15 or 30 min. Six groups of animals were assessed: 1) controls [neither KA nor HI (group I)]; 2) group II, KA alone; 3) group III, 15 min HI alone; 4) group IV,15 min HI plus KA; 5) group V, 30 min HI alone; and 6) group VI, 30 min HI plus KA. Animals were assessed neuropathologically at 3 (early) and 20 (late) d of recovery. KA injection without hypoxia resulted in continuous clinical and electrographic seizures lasting a mean of 282 min. No neuropathologic injury was seen in groups I (no HI or KA), II (KA alone), III (15 min HI alone), or IV (15 min HI and KA). Animals in group V (30 min HI alone) displayed brain damage with a mean score of 2.3 and 0.60 at 3 and 20 d of recovery, respectively. Animals in group VI (30 min HI and KA) had a mean score of 12.1 and 3.65 at 3 and 20 d of recovery, respectively. Compared with group V, the increased damage as a result of the seizure activity in group VI occurred exclusively in the hippocampus. Status epilepticus in the otherwise "healthy" neonatal brain does not cause neuropathologic injury. However, seizures superimposed on HI significantly exacerbate brain injury in a topographically specific manner.