Although accumulating evidence suggests that increased extracellular glutamate concentrations may play an important role in hypoxic-ischemic brain injury, dopamine and other catecholamines also seem to be involved. The N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonist MK 801 and moderate hypothermia (32-34 degrees C) are each known to be neuroprotective, but their combined effect on the release and metabolism of neurotransmitters is unknown. Seven-day-old pups (n: 150) underwent right common carotid artery ligation to induce hemispheric ischemia, and were later subjected to 120 minutes of hypoxia with 8% O2 and 92% N2O. Half the rats (Group I, n: 74) were subjected to normothermic conditions throughout the hypoxic period. Moderate hypothermia (30-32 degrees C) was induced in the other pups (Group II, n: 76) immediately after artery occlusion, and was maintained throughout the hypoxic period. Prior to inducing hypoxia, half of the rats in each group (Groups IA and IIA) received vehicle solution (0.9% NaCI) and the other rats (Groups IB and IIB) received MK 801 (0.5 mg/kg) subcutaneously at 45 and 120 minutes after occlusion. Intracerebral temperature was recorded every 15 minutes after occlusion. Infarct area (n: 40) was calculated after staining with 2% 2,3,5 triphenyltetrazolium chloride. Neuronal damage (n: 42) was assessed by quantifying CA1-CA3 neuronal loss at five hippocampal levels. The amount of damage to the monoamine system of the corpus striatum was determined based on the dopamine and 3,4 dihydroxyphenylacetic acid levels in the corpus striatum in both hemispheres (n: 46), as measured by high-pressure liquid chromatography and compared with normal control pups' values (n: 10). The normothermia/saline-treated pups had significantly larger infarct areas than the MK 801 only, hypothermia only, or MK 801/hypothermia combination groups. Neuropathological examination and striatal tissue monoamine data also confirmed marked neuronal damage in this group. Although MK 801 treatment alone resulted in significantly smaller infarct area and less tissue damage than was observed in the normothermia/saline-treated group, the moderate hypothermia and the MK 801/hypothermia combination treatment groups both exhibited better neuronal protection, especially in the corpus striatum. The rats that received combined treatment also had a significantly lower mortality rate.