Free radical-mediated oxidative damage has been implicated in tissue injury resulting from ischemia/reperfusion events. Global cortical ischemia/reperfusion injury to Mongolian gerbil brains was produced by transient occlusion of both common carotid arteries. Protein oxidation, as measured by protein carbonyl content, increased significantly during the reperfusion phase that followed 10 min of ischemia. The activity of glutamine synthetase, an enzyme known to be inactivated by metal-catalyzed oxidation reactions, decreased to 65% of control levels after 2 hr of reperfusion that followed 10 min of ischemia. We also report that the free radical spin trap N-tert-butyl-alpha-phenylnitrone [300 mg/kg (body weight)] administered 60 min before ischemia/reperfusion is initiated, partially prevents protein oxidation and protects from loss of glutamine synthetase activity. In addition, we report a N-tert-butyl-alpha-phenylnitrone-dependent nitroxide radical obtained in the lipid fraction of the ischemia/reperfusion-lesioned brains, but there was very little radical present in the comparable sham-operated control brains. These data strengthen the previous observation utilizing in vivo-trapping methods, that free radical flux is increased during the reperfusion phase of the ischemia-lesioned gerbil brain. The loss of glutamine synthetase would be expected to increase the levels of brain L-glutamate. Thus, the oxidative inactivation of glutamine synthetase may be a critical factor in the neurotoxicity produced after cerebral ischemia/reperfusion injury.