Extracellular concentrations of amino acids in halothane-anesthetized rats were measured using a microdialysis fiber inserted transversely through the dorsal spinal cord at the level of the lumbar enlargement in conjunction with HPLC and ultraviolet detection. After a 2-h washout and a 1-h control period, 20 min of reversible spinal cord ischemia was achieved by the inflation of a Fogarty F2 catheter passed through the femoral artery to the descending thoracic aorta. After 2 h of postischemic reperfusion, animals were transcardially perfused with saline followed by 10% formalin or 4% paraformaldehyde. The glutamate concentration in the dialysate was significantly elevated after 10 min of occlusion and returned to near-baseline during the first 30 min of reperfusion. Taurine was elevated significantly 0.5 h postocclusion and continued to increase throughout the 2 h of reperfusion. Glycine concentrations showed a tendency to be slightly above baseline during the reperfusion period. Glutamine concentrations modestly increased following 2 h of reperfusion. No significant changes in aspartate, asparagine, and serine were detected. In control animals no significant changes in any amino acids were detected. To assess the role of complete spinal ischemia on spinal glutamate release, studies were carried out using cardiac arrest. Twenty minutes after induction of cardiac arrest, the glutamate concentration was increased about 350-400%. In a separate group of animals, spinal cord blood flow (SCBF) and its response to decreased CO2 were measured using a laser probe implanted into the epidural space at the level of the L2 vertebral segment. SCBF decreased to 5-6% of the control during aortic occlusion. After reversible ischemia, marked hyperemia was seen for the first 15 min, followed by hypoperfusion at 60 min. Under control-preischemic conditions a decrease in arterial CO2 content caused a decrease in SCBF of about 25%. This autoregulatory response was almost completely absent when assessed 60 min after a 20-min interval of aortic occlusion. Histopathological analysis of spinal cord tissue from these animals demonstrated heavy neuronal argyrophilia affecting small and medium-sized neurons located predominantly in laminae III-V. These changes corresponded to signs of irreversible damage at the ultrastructural level. Occasionally, small areas of focal necrosis, located in the dorsolateral part of the dorsal horn and anterolateral part of the ventral horn, were found. The results are consistent with a role for glutamate in ischemically induced spinal cord damage and suggest that taurine elevation detected during the early reperfusion period may serve as an important indicator of irreversible spinal cord neuronal damage.