Deep hypothermic circulatory arrest facilitates repair of congenital cardiac anomalies in infants. It is known empirically that hypothermia protects against central nervous system (CNS) ischemic damage. The Q10O2 is only 2.2 for brain and thus a decrease in metabolic rate does not fully account for protective effects of hypothermia. Since enthalpy of dissociation of H2O is high (approximately 7 kcal/mole), its pH is temperature dependent (7.0 at 25 degrees C, 7.4 at 20 degrees C) and hypothermia may in part protect by its influence on hydrogen ion concentration. A manifestation of CNS susceptibility to ischemia is an obstruction of the microcirculation [no-reflow lesion (NRL)] demonstrated by infusion of carbon black into the cerebral circulation after a period of circulatory arrest. White lesions (NRL) against a gray background on cut section of brain increase in size with increasing time of arrest. The effect of anoxia versus circulatory arrest, brain temperature, and extracellular brain pH on NRL was studied in 45 mongrel dogs, subjected to varying periods of N2-induced anoxia on cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB) at 37 degrees C or 20 degrees C. In some studies jugular venous pH was adjusted by infusion of NaHCO3 or HCl. Control groups included normothermic CPB without anoxic and normothermic CPB, anoxia, and equimolar NaCl infusion. NRL was quantified by planimetry of photographs of cut sections of brain. These results confirm that NRL is abated by hypothermia and suggest that (1) NRL is a function of anoxia and not arrested circulation since perfusion with N2 at 37 degrees C does not protect the brain (i.e., NRL is not solely related to "critical reopening pressure") and (2) NRL is in part a function of extracellular pH.