This study compared the ability of three N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonists to prevent neuronal degeneration in an animal model of global cerebral ischemia. The model employed is characterized by damage to the striatum, hippocampus, and neocortex. Antagonists were administered to gerbils either before or after a 5-min bilateral carotid occlusion. The intraischemic rectal temperature was either maintained at 36-37 degrees C or allowed to fall passively to 28-32 degrees C. Antagonists and doses tested were 1 and 10 mg/kg of MK-801 (pre- or postischemia), 30 mg/kg of CGS 19755 preischemia, four 25 mg/kg doses of CGS 19755 administered between 0.5 and 6.5 h postischemia, and 40 mg/kg of MDL 27,266 (pre- or postischemia). All three NMDA receptor antagonists exhibited some degree of neuroprotective activity when the carotid occlusion was performed under normothermic conditions. Most of the treatments with antagonist markedly reduced striatal damage. CA1 hippocampal and neocortical pyramidal cells were spared by only three of the treatments, however, and the extent of neuroprotection varied widely from case to case. Toxic doses of antagonist were required to protect CA1 pyramidal cells from ischemic damage. Ischemic damage to hippocampal areas CA2-CA3a and CA4 appeared to be resistant to all of these treatments. Most CA1 pyramidal cells that were protected from degeneration by an NMDA receptor antagonist were histologically abnormal. The neuroprotective effects of MK-801 and intraischemic hypothermia appeared to be additive. MK-801 (10 mg/kg) consistently reduced the postischemic brain temperature, but only the magnitude of hypothermia produced soon after reperfusion correlated with its neuroprotective action. These results suggest that NMDA receptor antagonists are relatively poor neuroprotective agents against a moderately severe ischemic insult.