Lipid hydrolysis with subsequent production of eicosanoids and lipid peroxidation are two of the earliest potentially pathochemical events induced in spinal cord tissue by mechanical trauma. Although these membrane lipid disturbances are thought to contribute to the paralysis that occur subsequent to spinal cord injury, such a correlation has not been demonstrated directly. Consequently, the purpose of this study was to test the capacity of alpha tocopherol, the major lipid antioxidant in cellular membranes and a compound that limits the injury-induced lipid hydrolysis and peroxidation in spinal cord tissue, to promote functional recovery in a static loading model of spinal cord injury. After laminectomy, the L2 spinal cord of cats was compressed with 180 g for 5 min. For 5 days before injury and for 5 days postinjury, treated cats received orally 1000 IUD-alpha tocopherol acetate daily. Control cats were similarly injured but untreated. All cats were blindly evaluated weekly for 4 weeks for their neurologic recovery based on an 11 point behavioral scale that assessed walking, running, and stair climbing. By the second postinjury week, alpha tocopherol-pretreated cats demonstrated significantly better recovery than untreated controls. By 4 weeks, treated cats had recovered 72% of their preinjury function as compared with 20% for untreated controls, i.e., a 3.5-fold difference. These results strongly suggest that lipid peroxidation and/or hydrolysis is primarily involved in the genesis of posttraumatic paralysis and that alpha tocopherol exerts its protection of injured spinal cord tissue, at least in part, by its antioxidant and/or antilipolytic activity.