Extracellular levels of amino acids in the myocardial interstitium are sensitive indicators of myocyte function. Lowered ATP leads to a rapid extracellular appearance of amino acids with a high intra- to extracellular concentration ratio, such as taurine and glutamate. Nitrogen fluxes are reflected by glutamine, while alanine, glycine, serine and leucine are markers of proteolysis. In addition, degradation of membrane phospholipids is reflected by other primary amines, such as phosphoethanolamine. The time course of these changes was determined before, during and after cardioplegic heart arrest. Two regions of the heart were monitored in 20 patients by means of microdialysis sampling. After only 20 min of heart arrest, extracellular taurine, glutamate and phosphoethanolamine increased transiently up to 25 times the basal level. Ten–20 min later, glutamine increased by 6 times. A doubling of alanine, glycine, serine and leucine levels took place 30 min after release of the aortic cross-clamp. After 2 h, all were at levels similar to those recorded 15–30 h later. Levels of taurine and glutamate in the anterior wall of the heart correlated significantly with those of its lateral wall. The response to surgery and heart arrest was studied in a group of patients with ischemic heart disease as well as in another group of patients, who underwent heart surgery for nonischemic reasons. The response of taurine and glutamine was significantly higher for the patients with ischemic heart disease, in spite of a shorter mean time of heart arrest. No sex differences were recorded. High levels of amino acids coincided frequently with clinical events, which were suggestive of ischemia, but were also recorded in a few patients without diagnosed events. We conclude that monitoring of extracellular amino acids is valuable for evaluation and development of cardioprotective strategies.