The role of the aging human erythrocyte in the mechanisms leading to cerebral vasospasm after subarachnoid hemorrhage was investigated using an in vitro model for the environment of the erythrocyte in a subarachnoid blood clot. It has long been suspected that, due to its potent vasoactivity, erythrocyte lysate provides the major vasoconstrictive input to cerebral arteries during vasospasm. Under the model conditions (incubation at 37 degrees C in an artificial cerebrospinal fluid), however, the rate of spontaneous hemolysis was quite slow (about 1%/day), becoming only somewhat more rapid after 4 days' incubation. The rate of hemolysis of aging erythrocytes was dramatically increased (500- to 1000-fold) by the addition of plasma proteins, but only after the erythrocytes had aged 2 to 3 days, or more. The mechanism of age-dependent, plasma-induced hemolysis of originally autologous erythrocytes is shown to involve activation of the plasma complement protein pathway, analogous to the mechanisms of innate immunity which lead to lysis of nonautologous cell types and activate the inflammatory response.