Brain ischemia was induced for 10 or 30 min by clamping the common carotid arteries in rabbits whose vertebral arteries had previously been electrocauterized. EEG and tissue content of high energy phosphates were used to verify the ischemic state and to evaluate the degree of postischemic recovery. Extracellular levels and total contents of amino acids were followed in the hippocampus during ischemia and 4 h of recirculation. At the end of a 30-min ischemic period, GABA had increased 250 times, glutamate 160 times, and aspartate and taurine 30 times in the extracellular phase. The levels returned to normal within 30 min of reflow. A delayed increase of extracellular phosphoethanolamine and ethanolamine peaked after 1-2 h of reflow. Ten minutes of ischemia elicited considerably smaller but similar effects. With respect to total amino acids in the hippocampus, glutamate and aspartate decreased to 30-50% of control while GABA appeared unaffected after 4 h of reflow. Alanine, valine, phenylalanine, leucine, and isoleucine increased severalfold. The importance of toxic extracellular levels of excitatory amino acids, as well as of high extracellular levels of inhibitory amino acids, are considered in relation to the pathophysiology of neuronal cell loss during cerebral ischemia.