Initial studies on the role of glutamate receptors in traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) implicated the NMDA subclass of ionotropic glutamate receptors in contributing to functional deficits. Recently we obtained evidence suggesting that non-NMDA ionotropic receptors may participate in producing a portion of the behavioral impairment after SCI. To test this hypothesis we have conducted a dose-response experiment, focally injecting 2,3-dihydroxy-6-nitro-7-sulfamoyl-benzo(f)quinoxaline (NBQX; 1.5, 5, or 15 nmol), a highly selective antagonist of alpha-amino-3- hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid (AMPA)/kainate receptors, or vehicle alone, into the injury site beginning at 15 min after a standardized contusive SCI. Behavioral tests of hindlimb reflex and coordinated sensorimotor function were performed 1 d after injury and weekly thereafter. At 4 weeks, spinal cord tissue was examined using quantitative histopathological and immunocytochemical techniques. We found a dose-dependent reduction in tissue loss at the thoracic injury site, with greater residual amounts of both gray matter and myelinated white matter. The maximum dose (15 nmol) significantly reduced the average length of the lesions and doubled the area of residual white matter at the epicenter. Serotonin immunoreactivity caudal to the lesion, used as a marker for descending motor control axons, was also increased in a dose-related manner and nearly tripled with the highest dose of NBQX as compared to controls. Most importantly, the reduced tissue loss in NBQX-treated groups was correlated with reduced functional deficits. There was a dose-dependent enhancement of speed and degree of recovery of both reflex and coordinated hindlimb motor activity, and reduction in the time required for establishing a reflex bladder. The long-term functional deficits at 4 weeks after SCI were reduced in a dose-related manner. Further, regression analyses demonstrated a significant correlation between the increase in amount of residual tissue and improvement in hindlimb function. Our results suggest that in this type of incomplete contusive SCI, a large and functionally important proportion of the tissue loss appears to be due to secondary injury mediated by local AMPA/kainate receptors.