White matter of the mammalian CNS suffers irreversible injury when subjected to anoxia/ischemia. However, the mechanisms of anoxic injury in central myelinated tracts are not well understood. Although white matter injury depends on the presence of extracellular Ca2+, the mode of entry of Ca2+ into cells has not been fully characterized. We studied the mechanisms of anoxic injury using the in vitro rat optic nerve, a representative central white matter tract. Functional integrity of the nerves was monitored electrophysiologically by quantitatively measuring the area under the compound action potential, which recovered to 33.5 +/- 9.3% of control after a standard 60 min anoxic insult. Reducing Na+ influx through voltage-gated Na+ channels during anoxia by applying Na+ channel blockers (TTX, saxitoxin) substantially improved recovery; TTX was protective even at concentrations that had little effect on the control compound action potential. Conversely, increasing Na+ channel permeability during anoxia with veratridine resulted in greater injury. Manipulating the transmembrane Na+ gradient at various times before or during anoxia greatly affected the degree of resulting injury; applying zero-Na+ solution (choline or Li+ substituted) before anoxia significantly improved recovery; paradoxically, the same solution applied after the start of anoxia resulted in more injury than control. Thus, ionic conditions that favored reversal of the normal transmembrane Na+ gradient during anoxia promoted injury, suggesting that Ca2+ loading might occur via reverse operation of the Na+)-Ca2+ exchanger. Na(+)- Ca2+ exchanger blockers (bepridil, benzamil, dichlorobenzamil) significantly protected the optic nerve from anoxic injury. Together, these results suggest the following sequence of events leading to anoxic injury in the rat optic nerve: anoxia causes rapid depletion of ATP and membrane depolarization leading to Na+ influx through incompletely inactivated Na+ channels. The resulting rise in the intracellular [Na+], coupled with membrane depolarization, causes damaging levels of Ca2+ to be admitted into the intracellular compartment through reverse operation of the Na(+)-Ca2+ exchanger. These observations emphasize that differences in the pathophysiology of gray and white matter anoxic injury are likely to necessitate multiple strategies for optimal CNS protection.