Pathological changes in the cortical gray matter in infantile hydrocephalus vary with the age at onset and may not be reversible with shunt treatment. We have used electron microscopy to investigate the sequence of pathological change and the effect of shunt treatment on layer VI pyramidal cells from infant H-Tx rats with inherited early-onset hydrocephalus. Tissue was prepared from the frontal and visual cortex of control and hydrocephalic rats at 4, 11, and 21 days after birth, together with 21-day rats previously treated with ventriculosubcutaneous shunts at 4-5 or 10-11 days after birth. Both cortical regions gave similar results but the effects were more severe in the visual cortex. In the early stages of hydrocephalus, the pyramidal cells were in clusters with fewer mature dendrites and less cytoplasmic organization than those in control rats, and some neuronal processes were vacuolated. In intermediate hydrocephalus the changes were more severe, with vacuolated cytoplasm, fewer cytoplasmic organelles, frequent swollen processes, and infrequent synapses. In advanced hydrocephalus at 21 days, many neurons showed degenerative changes, with edematous Golgi and dilated endoplasmic reticulum, distorted mitochondria, and single ribosomes. The neuropil contained many spongy areas with distended profiles. Shunt treatment prevented most of the changes if carried out at 4 days. Shunt treatment at 11 days also gave a dramatic recovery at the cellular level, but there were more immature pyramidal cells and edematous processes in the neuropil than in the 4-day-treated rats. The changes in hydrocephalus are consistent with progressive neuronal damage, which is largely prevented by early shunt treatment.