The image intensity in many contrast agent perfusion studies is designed to be a function of bulk tissue T1, which is, in turn, a function of the compartmental (vascular, interstitial, and cellular) T1s, and the rate of proton exchange between the compartments. The goal of this study was to characterize the compartmental tissue Gd-DTPA relaxivities and to determine the proton exchange rate between the compartments. Expressing [Gd-DTPA] as mmol/liter tissue water, the relaxivities at 8.45 T and room temperature were: saline, 3.87 +/- 0.06 (mM.s)-1 (mean +/- SE; n = 29); plasma, 3.98 +/- 0.05 (mM.s)-1 (n = 6); and control cartilage (primarily an interstitium), 4.08 +/- 0.08 (mM.s)-1 (n = 17), none of which are significantly different. The relaxivity of cartilage did not change with compression, trypsinization, or equilibration in plasma, suggesting relaxivity is not influenced by interstitial solid matrix density, charge, or the presence of plasma proteins. T1 relaxation studies on isolated perfused hearts demonstrated that the cellular-interstitial water exchange rate is between 8 and 27 Hz, while the interstitial-vascular water exchange rate is less than 7 Hz. Thus, for Gd-DTPA concentrations, which would be used clinically, the T1 relaxation rate behavior of intact hearts can be modeled as being in the fast exchange regime for cellular-interstitial exchange but slow exchange for interstitial-vascular exchange. A measured relaxivity of 3.82 +/- 0.05 (mM.s)-1 (n = 8) for whole blood (red blood cells and plasma) and 4.16 +/- 0.02 (mM.s)-1 (n = 3) for frog heart tissue (cells and interstitium) (with T1 and Gd-DTPA concentration defined from the total tissue water volume) supports the conclusion of fast cellular-extracellular exchange. Knowledge of the Gd-DTPA relaxivity and maintaining Gd-DTPA concentration in the range so as to maintain fast cellular-interstitial exchange allows for calculation of bulk Gd-DTPA concentration from bulk tissue T1 within a calculable error due to slow vascular exchange.