Five minutes of oxygen and glucose deprivation (termed “in vitro ischemia”) causes long-term synaptic transmission failure (LTF) in the CA1 region of the rat hippocampal slice. Dependence of LTF on cell calcium was tested by generating graded reductions in cell Ca. There was a strong correlation between the average level of exchangeable cell Ca in CA1 during ischemia, and the extent of LTF. In standard buffer, exchangeable cell Ca in CA1 increased by 35% after 3 min of ischemia and remained elevated for the entire 5 min of ischemia. Unidirectional Ca influx increased by 35% during the first 2.5 min of ischemia and remained at that level for the next 2.5 min. There were no changes in unidirectional Ca efflux during this period. Thus, the accumulation results from increased influx of Ca. Ca influx during the first 2.5 min of ischemia depended entirely on NMDA channels; it was completely blocked by the noncompetitive NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801. However MK-801 had no effect during the second 2.5 min. This inactivation of NMDA-mediated influx during ischemia appears to result from dephosphorylation. Okadaic acid increased Ca influx during the second 2.5 min of ischemia and this increase was blocked by MK-801. The ischemia-induced Ca influx during the second 2.5 min of ischemia was attenuated 25% by nifedipine (50 microM) and an additional 35% by the Na/Ca exchange inhibitor benzamil (100 microM). The AMPA/kainate antagonist DNQX had no effect on the Ca influx. Antagonists were used to relate Ca influx to LTF. Blockade of enhanced Ca entry during ischemia in standard buffer (2.4 mM Ca) had no effect on LTF, consistent with total cell Ca prior to ischemia being adequate to cause complete LTF. However, MK-801 strongly protected against LTF when the buffer contained 1.2 mM Ca, a more physiological level. MK-801 combined with DNQX prevented transmission damage in standard buffer. Thus, AMPA/kainate receptor activation contributes to ischemic damage, although not by enhancing Ca entry.