The effects of severe hypoxia were studied in a primary culture of astrocytes prepared from newborn rat cerebral cortex. Hypoxia was created by placing cultures in an airtight chamber that was flushed with 95% N2/5% CO2 for 15 min before being sealed. The hypoxic environment was maintained constant for up to 24 h. During the first 12 h of hypoxia, astrocytes showed no morphological changes by phase-contrast microscopy. After 18 h of hypoxia, some astrocytes in culture became swollen and started to detach from the culture dish. All cells in the culture were destroyed after 24 h of hypoxia. The lactate dehydrogenase level in the culture medium increased more than tenfold between 12 and 24 h of hypoxia. Glutamate uptake was inhibited 80% by similar hypoxic conditions. The cell volume of astrocytes, as measured by 3-O-methyl-[14C]-D-glucose uptake, was increased. These observations suggested cell membrane dysfunction. The malondialdehyde level of hypoxic cultures increased two-fold after 24 h of hypoxia. Verapamil (0.5 mM), furosemide (1 mM), indomethacin (1 mM), MgCl2 (10 mM), and mannitol (10 mM) reduced but never completely abolished the release of lactate dehydrogenase from hypoxic astrocytes. These data suggest multifactorial causes for severe injury in hypoxic astrocytes.