The aim of this work was to ascertain whether free radicals play a causal role in the injury occurring in myocardial ischemia and reperfusion. To this purpose we observed whether spin-trapping compounds protect the heart when used at a concentration capable of reacting with free radicals. The lipophilic spin trap alpha-phenyl-t-butyl nitrone (PBN) was used because it is taken up by the myocites. Isolated Langendorff rat hearts were subjected to ischemia according to two schemes "Model A" = 30 min zero-flow ischemia followed by 30 min reperfusion; "Model B" = 60 min of low-flow ischemia (10% of the individual value; N2 saturated) followed by 30 min reperfusion. Treated groups received in addition 5.0 mM PBN which was supplied continuously. The following parameters were measured throughout the experiment contractile performance (RPP); coronary flow (CF); CPK; phosphocreatine (PCr), ATP, inorganic phosphate (Pi), intracellular pH (pHi). The pathology obtained by "Model A" is more severe than that of Model B, and partly irreversible. During the ischemic phase in "Model A", contractility, PCr and ATP dropped to near zero; during initial reflow CPK rose about 13-fold and Pi rose 2.5-fold, while pHi decreased to 6.1. During reperfusion, a partial recovery of PCr, Pi and pHi was observed, while RPP and ATP did not increase; PBN treatment improved significantly PCr and CPK, while the other parameters were unaffected. During ischemia, "Model B" hearts showed a drop of contractility to near zero, of PCr to 35%, of ATP to 50%; CPK rose 7-fold and Pi 1.5-fold; pHi was not modified. During reperfusion, all parameters recovered in part, with exception of Pi. PBN developed a marked protective activity on all tested parameters, which gained a nearly normal value. The results of the present investigations show that the lipophilic spin trap PBN partly protects the heart from the ischemia/reperfusion injury, thus confirming that free radicals play a causal role in this pathology; the continuous loading of the tissue with the drug can be an important factor for obtaining the protective effect.