Iron and iron compounds--including mammalian hemoglobins--catalyze hydroxyl radical production and lipid peroxidation. To determine whether hemoglobin-mediated lipid peroxidation might be important in hemorrhagic injuries to the central nervous system (CNS), we studied the effects of purified hemoglobin on CNS homogenates and injected hemoglobin into the spinal cords of anesthetized cats. Hemoglobin markedly inhibits Na/K ATPase activity in CNS homogenates and spinal cords of living cats. Hemoglobin also catalyzes substantial peroxidation of CNS lipids. Importantly, the potent iron chelator, desferrioxamine, blocks these adverse effects of hemoglobin, both in vitro and in vivo. Because desferrioxamine is not known to interact with heme iron, these results indicate that free iron, derived from hemoglobin, is the proximate toxic species. Overall, our data suggest that hemoglobin, released from red cells after trauma, can promote tissue injury through iron-dependent mechanisms. Suppression of this damage by desferrioxamine suggests a rational therapeutic approach to management of trauma-induced CNS injury.