Children and menstruant women are far more likely than men to develop metabolic brain damage from hyponatremia. We evaluated brain adaptation and mortality from hyponatremia in male and female rats of three different age groups. With acute hyponatremia, the mortality was 84% in prepubertal rats vs. 15% in adults and 0% in elderly rats. With chronic hyponatremia, mortality was 13% in adult males vs. 62% in females. Testosterone pretreatment significantly decreased mortality (from 62 to 9% in adult females, and from 100% to zero in prepubertal rats), but estrogen significantly increased mortality (from 13 to 44% in adult males). With acute hyponatremia in adult rats, brain sodium was significantly decreased (-17%), but in prepubertal rats it was actually increased (+ 37%). Cerebral perfusion during chronic hyponatremia was significantly impaired in adult females vs. males or controls (P < 0.01). Neither vasopressin administration nor chronic hyponatremia induced with desmopressin resulted in any mortality or decrement of cerebral perfusion. Thus age, gender, and the cerebral effects of vasopressin are major determinants of mortality in experimental metabolic encephalopathy.