Protection by the NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801 against transient spinal cord ischemia-induced hypersensitivity was studied in rats. The spinal ischemia was initiated by vascular occlusion resulting from the interaction between the photosensitizing dye Erythrosin B and an argon laser beam. The hypersensitivity, termed allodynia, where the animals reacted by vocalization to nonnoxious mechanical stimuli in the flank area, was consistently observed during several days after induction of the ischemia. Pretreatment with MK-801 (0.1-0.5 mg/kg, iv) 10 min before laser irradiation dose dependently prevented the occurrence of allodynia. The neuroprotective effect of MK-801 was not reduced by maintaining normal body temperature during and after irradiation. There was a significant negative correlation between the delay in the administration of MK-801 after irradiation and the protective effect of the drug. Histological examination revealed slight morphological damage in the spinal cord in 38% of control rats after 1 min of laser irradiation without pretreatment with MK-801. No morphological abnormalities were observed in rats after pretreatment with MK-801 (0.5 mg/kg). The present results provide further evidence for the involvement of excitatory amino acids, through activation of the NMDA receptor, in the development of dysfunction following ischemic trauma to the spinal cord.