The metabolic changes in neonatal hydrocephalus that lead to permanent brain injury are not clearly defined, nor is the extent to which these changes can be prevented by a cerebrospinal fluid shunt. To clarify these processes, cerebral glucose utilization was examined using [14C]2-deoxyglucose autoradiography in 1-month-old kittens, kaolin-induced hydrocephalic littermates, and hydrocephalic kittens in which a ventriculoperitoneal shunt had been inserted 10 days after kaolin injection. The hydrocephalic kittens showed thinning of the cerebral mantle and an anterior-to-posterior gradient of enlargement of the ventricular system, with a ventricle:brain ratio of 24% for the frontal and 35% for the occipital horns compared with control (< 0.5%) and shunted (< 5%) animals. White matter in hydrocephalic animals was edematous. Myelination was delayed in the periventricular region and in the cores of the cerebral gyri. Glucose utilization in hydrocephalic and shunted animals was unchanged from control animals in all gray-matter regions examined. However, in hydrocephalic animals, the frontal white matter exhibited a significant increase in glucose utilization (25 mumol.100 gm-1.min-1) in the cores of gyri compared with normal surrounding white-matter values (14.8 mumol.100 gm-1.min-1). Very low values (mean 4 mumol.100 gm-1.min-1) were found in areas corresponding to severe white-matter edema, and these areas were surrounded by a halo of increased activity (24 mumol.100 gm-1.min-1). In contrast, cytochrome oxidase activity in white matter was homogeneous. Shunting resulted in restoration of the cerebral mantle thickness, a return to normal levels of glucose utilization in the white matter, and an improvement in myelination. It is suggested that the areas of increased glucose utilization seen in the white matter represent anaerobic glycolysis which, if untreated, progresses to infarction. The pattern of this increased glucose utilization matches that of expected myelination and, during this period of high energy demand, white matter may be susceptible to the hypoperfusion associated with hydrocephalus.