Hypoxia increases cerebral blood flow (CBF), but it is unknown whether this increase is uniform across all brain regions. We used H(2)(15)O positron emission tomography imaging to measure absolute blood flow in 50 regions of interest across the human brain (n = 5) during normoxia and moderate hypoxia. Pco(2) was kept constant ( approximately 44 Torr) throughout the study to avoid decreases in CBF associated with the hypocapnia that normally occurs with hypoxia. Breathing was controlled by mechanical ventilation. During hypoxia (inspired Po(2) = 70 Torr), mean end-tidal Po(2) fell to 45 +/- 6.3 Torr (means +/- SD). Mean global CBF increased from normoxic levels of 0.39 +/- 0.13 to 0.45 +/- 0.13 ml/g during hypoxia. Increases in regional CBF were not uniform and ranged from 9.9 +/- 8.6% in the occipital lobe to 28.9 +/- 10.3% in the nucleus accumbens. Regions of interest that were better perfused during normoxia generally showed a greater regional CBF response. Phylogenetically older regions of the brain tended to show larger vascular responses to hypoxia than evolutionary younger regions, e.g., the putamen, brain stem, thalamus, caudate nucleus, nucleus accumbens, and pallidum received greater than average increases in blood flow, while cortical regions generally received below average increases. The heterogeneous blood flow distribution during hypoxia may serve to protect regions of the brain with essential homeostatic roles. This may be relevant to conditions such as altitude, breath-hold diving, and obstructive sleep apnea, and may have implications for functional brain imaging studies that involve hypoxia.