Acute ethanol intoxication is a frequent complicating factor in human head injury, yet its impact on neurological outcome remains poorly defined. This study was undertaken to assess the effect of varying levels of preinjury ethanol on early postinjury mortality, recovery of motor function, and degree of neural degeneration after cortical contusion injury in the rat. Adult rats were pretrained on a beam-walking task, then randomized to one of five groups: low-dose ethanol and injury (1 g/kg, 16 animals); moderate-dose ethanol and injury (2.5 g/kg, 11 animals); high-dose ethanol and injury (3 g/kg, 17 animals); no ethanol and injury (nine animals); or ethanol and sham injury (seven animals). Forty minutes after intraperitoneal injection of ethanol or saline, the rats received a pneumatic piston-induced contusion injury of the left primary motor cortex. Their beam-walking ability was assessed daily for the next 7 days. At 4 weeks postinjury, the brains were sectioned and the dimensions of the cortical lesions were determined. Preinjury ethanol administration was associated with an acute postinjury mortality rate of 29.5% (p < 0.05); the highest mortality rate (47.1%) occurred in the high-dose ethanol group, whereas no deaths occurred in the animals in the no ethanol or sham-injured groups (p < 0.01). However, injured animals receiving low- and moderate-dose ethanol had significantly less severe beam-walking impairment initially, and a more rapid return to normal beam-walking ability, compared to the no and high-dose ethanol groups (p < 0.05). Additionally, the mean lesion volumes were significantly smaller in the low- and moderate-dose ethanol treatment groups compared to the no and high-dose ethanol groups (23.2 +/- 8 mm3 and 29 +/- 6.7 mm3 vs. 52 +/- 8.8 mm3 and 53.7 +/- 10.9 mm3, respectively, p < 0.01). In this cortical contusion model, the presence of ethanol before injury appears to exert a potent neuroprotective effect when administered in low or moderate doses. This action is postulated to result from ethanol-induced inhibition of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor-mediated excitotoxicity. The loss of neuroprotection and increased mortality rates observed with high-dose ethanol may be related to ethanol-induced hemodynamic and respiratory depression.