Prolonged (2-6 h) cooling of monolayer cultures of dissociated murine spinal cord at temperatures below 17 degrees C caused pronounced swelling of neuronal perikarya and dendrites. The numbers of swollen neurons in a culture increased as the temperature was reduced, and at 7 degrees C-10 degrees C all of the neurons were swollen. On rewarming the cultures to 37 degrees C, the majority of the swollen neurons died (up to 74% at 10 degrees C). Glial cells were not affected. Addition of the NMDA antagonists D-2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate (DAPV, 100 microM), ketamine (100 microM), and dibenzocyclohepteneimine (MK801, 10 microM) to spinal cord cultures before lowering the temperature to 10 degrees C minimized the dendrosomatic swelling and reduced neuronal mortality from 74% to 10%. These data show a surprising sensitivity of some neurons to nonfreezing low temperatures and suggest direct involvement of the NMDA receptor in hypothermia-related neuronal death.