Arteriovenous (jugular bulb) differences in blood lactate were followed throughout the procedure and until 18 hours postoperatively in 17 children undergoing congenital heart operations during profound hypothermia. Transcranial Doppler sonography was used to monitor changes in blood flow velocity in the middle cerebral artery. Ten children had a period of total circulatory arrest (39 +/- 6 minutes) during profound hypothermia (arrest group). Another 7 children had continuous but reduced pump flow (0.6 to 1.2 L/m2) throughout hypothermic cardiopulmonary bypass (low-flow group). The mean age was 7.3 +/- 1.3 months in the arrest group and 7.9 +/- 2.2 months in the low-flow group. The mean time on bypass was 90 +/- 10 minutes in the arrest group and 75 +/- 9 minutes in the low-flow group. The velocity of blood flow in the middle cerebral artery decreased significantly (p < 0.05) in both groups to less than 50% of the preoperative level during hypothermia and increased during and after rewarming. Differences in blood lactate level were significantly less than zero (p < 0.05) from the start of rewarming until 3 hours after the end of cardiopulmonary bypass in the arrest group, whereas differences in blood lactate level remained close to zero in the low-flow group. We conclude that circulatory arrest during profound hypothermia is followed by a period with release of lactate from the brain, indicating anaerobic cerebral metabolism and possibly disturbed cerebral aerobic metabolism. This study argues for the avoidance of circulatory arrest whenever possible.