Adenosine, produced from the decomposition of adenosine triphosphate, is believed to provide protective effects during ischemia. On the other hand, adenosine metabolites may serve as precursors for oxygen free radical formation. The time course of formation of adenosine and its purine metabolites was studied during retinal ischemia in rats. Concentrations of adenosine and its purine nucleoside metabolites inosine, hypoxanthine, and xanthine in the retina-choroid of ketamine/xylazine-anesthetized rats were measured during retinal ischemia using high performance liquid chromatography. Quantitative measurements were made possible in the small tissue mass through the use of internal standards. Ischemia was induced by ligation of the central retinal artery. In each rat, one eye was ischemic while the other served as a non-ischemic control. Eyes were frozen in situ at 1, 5, 10, 20, 30, 60, and 120 min of ischemia. The retina-choroid was then removed from the frozen eyes and analysed. Significant increases in the concentrations of adenosine, inosine, and hypoxanthine in ischemic compared to control retina-choroid were detectable within 1 to 5 min of the onset of ischemia, and within 10 min for xanthine. Increase in adenosine concentration in ischemic relative to control retina-choroid plateaued at 30 min of ischemia, while inosine and hypoxanthine concentrations increased continuously. The increase in xanthine concentration was exponential throughout the measurement period. This study documented the time-related changes in purine nucleoside concentration during ischemia. Prolonged ischemia results in ongoing production of xanthine, which by serving as a precursor for oxygen free radical formation, could be a pathogenic factor in prolonged retinal ischemia.