Cardiopulmonary bypass for heart operations is associated with a whole body inflammatory reaction. The main factors involved in this reaction are the contact system and the complement system. The activation of the contact system is considered mainly responsible for impaired hemostasis because it affects platelet function. The activation of the complement system is considered the main cause for organ dysfunction, particularly of the lung, due to activation of leukocytes. This study in 10 neonates was undertaken to evaluate if there are effects of activation of the contact and the complement systems in neonatal extracorporeal life support comparable to those during cardiopulmonary bypass for cardiac operations. Two periods of blood activation during extracorporeal life support could be distinguished. The initial blood-material interaction at the onset of extracorporeal life support resulted in activation of both the contact and the complement systems. The contact activation was apparent by elevated factor XIIa-C1 esterase inhibitor complexes, decreased kallikrein inhibitory capacity, thrombin-antithrombin III formation, and moderate generation of fibrin(ogen) degradation products. The complement activation was characterized by elevated C3a, decreased leukocyte count, elastase release, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha production. This initial activation pattern subsided by 24 hours. A second activation period was observed 72 hours after the onset of extracorporeal life support, which was characterized only by increased clotting and fibrinolytic activity while no activation of the complement system was observed. We conclude that the initial activation pattern in extracorporeal life support is similar to that observed during cardiopulmonary bypass for cardiac operations. The contact activation that affects platelets might explain the continuous platelet consumption observed during extracorporeal life support. In this period, as in cardiopulmonary bypass, aprotinin given in the pump prime might be effective to prevent platelet consumption and impairment of hemostasis also in extracorporeal life support. The complement activation and leukocyte inflammatory reaction during the initial period are able to cause a capillary leak syndrome and might therefore explain the frequently observed temporary compromised lung function in extracorporeal life support. This reaction, as in cardiopulmonary bypass, might be reduced by the use of specific drugs or heparin coating also in extracorporeal life support. The cause of the second period of activation during extracorporeal life support requires further studies before adequate measures can be recommended.