Quantitative measurement of regional blood flow during cardiac arrest and resuscitation has been confined to large animals. We report on a rodent model utilizing radioactive microspheres during cardiac arrest and resuscitation for investigation of regional blood flow. Ventricular fibrillation was electrically induced in 10 pentobarbital-anesthetized Sprague-Dawley rats. Resuscitation was attempted by precordial compression followed by external direct current countershock. During precordial compression, cardiac output corresponded to 12% of prearrest flow. Similarly low flows were observed in the myocardium and brain. However, much lower flows were observed in the adrenal glands, kidneys, intra-abdominal viscera, skin, and skeletal muscle. Five of ten animals were successfully resuscitated. During precordial compression, resuscitated animals had significantly higher cardiac output (13.1 +/- 4.1 vs. 8.6 +/- 1.46 ml/min), myocardial blood flow (0.70 +/- 0.24 vs. 0.22 +/- 0.15 ml.min-1.g-1), cerebral blood flow (0.17 +/- 0.04 vs. 0.06 +/- 0.02 ml.min-1.g-1), and adrenal blood flow (1.09 +/- 0.60 vs. 0.27 +/- 0.16 ml.min-1.g-1). Thirty minutes after successful resuscitation, cardiac output and myocardial, cerebral, renal, and adrenal blood flows and blood flow to splanchnic viscera (with the exception of the spleen) had returned to > or = 70% of prearrest flows. These studies confirm the conclusion of earlier investigations in larger animals that visceral blood flow during cardiac arrest and precordial compression is preferentially distributed to the brain and myocardium. Successful cardiac resuscitation is contingent on threshold levels of myocardial blood flow that exceed 0.4 ml.min-1.g-1.