Hypothermia protects the brain and other vital organs during periods of ischaemia. We differentiate between mild (36-34 degrees C), moderate (33-29 degrees C), deep (28-17 degrees C) and profund (16-4 degrees C) hypothermia. During hypothermia, cerebral metabolic rate and cerebral blood flow decrease dependent on temperature. The relation between temperature and cerebral metabolism is expressed by the temperature coeffizient Q10, which is the ratio between two metabolic rates separated by 10 degrees C. The following factors contribute to decreases in cerebral blood flow seen during hypothermia: cerebral metabolic depression, decreases in cardiac output, and decreases in arterial blood pressure with pH-stat management, increases in hematocrit and in blood viscosity. Mild or moderate hypothermia reduces histopathological damage and neurological deficits if started before and during cerebral ischaemia. Hypothermia may also improve neurologic outcome if initiated following focal cerebral ischaemia, but is less effective after global ischaemic insults. Mild hypothermia appears to be safer and more effective compared to moderate hypothermia. In most instances, deep hypothermia renders neurologic outcome worse, which is most likely related to the generation of toxic metabolites and inadequate myocardial function during rewarming. The neuroprotective effects of hypothermia are related to several mechanisms along the ischaemic cascade: prevention of postischaemic hypoperfusion, reduction of functional and basal metabolism, decreased accumulation of lactic acid and oedema formation, inhibition of excitatory neurotransmitter release, prevention of Ca(++)- and Na(+)-influx, inhibition of lipid peroxidase activity, and free radical formation, stimulation of regenerative immediate early genes. The side effects of hypothermia include myocardial ischaemia, cardiac arrhythmias, decreased left ventricular contractility, coagulation abnormalities, and suppression of metabolic and immunological processes.