It is known that class I antiarrhythmic drugs lose their antifibrillatory activity with severe ischaemia, whereas class IV antiarrhythmic drugs acquire such activity. Tachycardia, which is also a depolarizing factor, has recently been shown to give rise to an alteration of ion transmembrane exchanges which is particularly marked in the case of calcium. This leads one to wonder if the change in antifibrillatory activity of antiarrhythmic drugs caused by ischaemia depends on the same process. The change in antifibrillatory activity was studied in normal conditions ranging to those of severe ischaemia with a class I antiarrhythmic drug, flecainide (1.00 mg x kg(-1) plus 0.04 mg x kg(-1)x min(-1), a sodium channel blocker, and a class IV antiarrhythmic drug, verapamil (50 microg x kg(-1) plus 2 microg x kg(-1) x min(-1)), a calcium channel blocker. The experiments were performed in anaesthetized, open-chest pigs. The resulting blockade of each of these channels was assessed at the end of ischaemic periods of increasing duration (30, 60, 120, 180, 300, and 420 s) by determining the ventricular fibrillation threshold (VFT). VFT was determined by means of trains of diastolic stimuli of 100 ms duration delivered by a subepicardial electrode introduced into the myocardium (heart rate 180 beats per min). Ischaemia was induced by completely occluding the left anterior descending coronary artery. The monophasic action potential was recorded concurrently for the measurement of ventricular conduction time (VCT). The monophasic action potential duration (MAPD) varied with membrane polarization of the fibres. The blockade of sodium channels by flecainide, which normally raises VFT (7.0 +/- 0.4 to 13.8 +/- 0.8 mA, p < 0.001) and lengthens VCT (28 +/- 3 to 44 +/- 5 ms, p < 0.001), lost its effects in the course of ischaemia. This resulted in decreased counteraction of the ischaemia-induced fall of VFT and decreased aggravation of the ischaemia-induced lengthening of VCT. The blockade of calcium channels, which normally does not alter VFT (between 7.2 +/- 0.6 and 8.4 +/- 0.7 mA, n.s.) or VCT (between 30 +/- 2 and 34 +/- 3 ms, n.s.), slowed the ischaemia-induced fall of VFT. VFT required more time to reach 0 mA, thus delaying the onset of fibrillation. Membrane depolarization itself was opposed as the shortening of MAPD and the lengthening of VCT were also delayed. Consequently there is a progressive decrease in the role played by sodium channels during ischaemia in the rhythmic systolic depolarization of the ventricular fibres. This reduces or suppresses the ability of sodium channel blockers to act on excitability or conduction, and increases the role of calcium channel blockers in attenuating ischaemia-induced disorders.