The role of cerebral ischemia in the pathophysiology of traumatic brain injury is unclear. Cerebral blood flow (CBF) measurements with 133Xe have thus far revealed ischemia in a substantial number of patients only when performed between 4 and 12 hours postinjury. But these studies cannot be performed sooner after injury, they cannot be done in patients with intracranial hematomas still in place, and they cannot detect focal ischemia. Therefore, the authors performed CBF measurements in 35 comatose head-injured patients using stable xenon-enhanced computerized tomography (CT), simultaneously with the initial CT scan (at a mean (+/- standard error of the mean) interval of 3.1 +/- 2.1 hours after injury). Seven patients with diffuse cerebral swelling had significantly lower flows in all brain regions measured as compared to patients without swelling or with focal contusions; in four of the seven, cerebral ischemia (CBF less than or equal to 18 ml/100 gm.min-1) was present. Acute intracranial hematomas were associated with decreased CBF and regional ischemia in the ipsilateral hemisphere, but did not disproportionately impair brain-stem blood flow. Overall, global or regional ischemia was found in 11 patients (31.4%). There was no correlation between the presence of hypoxia or hypertension before resuscitation and the occurrence of ischemia, neither could ischemia be attributed to low pCO2. Ischemia was significantly associated with early mortality (p less than 0.02), whereas normal or high CBF values were not predictive of favorable short-term outcome. These data support the hypothesis that ischemia is an important secondary injury mechanism after traumatic brain injury, and that trauma may share pathophysiological mechanisms with stroke in a large number of cases; this may have important implications for the use of hyperventilation and antihypertensive drugs in the acute management of severely head-injured patients, and may lead to testing of drugs that are effective or have shown promise in the treatment of ischemic stroke.