Brain hypothermia is at present the most effective neuroprotective treatment against brain ischemia in man. Ischemia induces a redistribution of proteins involved in synaptic functions, which is markedly diminished by therapeutic hypothermia (33 degrees C). Dendritic spines at excitatory synapses are motile and show both shape changes and rearrangement of synaptic proteins as a consequence of neuronal activity. We investigated the effect of reduced temperature (33 degrees C and 27 degrees C compared with 37 degrees C), on spine motility, length and morphology by studying the distribution of GFP-actin before, during and after induction of in vitro ischemia. Because high-concentration actin filaments are located inside spines, dissociated hippocampal neurons (7-11 DIV) from transgenic mice expressing GFP-actin were used in this study. The movement of the spines and the distribution of GFP-actin were recorded using time-lapse fluorescence microscopy. Under normal conditions rapid rearrangement of GFP-actin was seen in dendritic spines, indicating highly motile spines at 37 degrees C. Decreasing the incubation temperature to 33 degrees C or 27 degrees C, dramatically reduces actin dynamics (spine motility) by approximately 50% and 70%, respectively. In addition, the length of the spine shaft was reduced by 20%. We propose that decreasing the temperature from 37 degrees C to 33 degrees C during ischemia decreases the neuronal actin polymerization rate, which reduces spine calcium kinetics, disrupts detrimental cell signaling and protects neurons against damage.