There is currently great interest in acute coronary reperfusion as a therapeutic modality for severe myocardial ischemia. While some studies have demonstrated a reduction in the overall extent of necrosis by early reperfusion, other studies have identified potentially deleterious effects produced by reflow. Because membrane disruption may be an important mechanism of irreversible cell injury, we measured changes in cell membrane integrity early during reperfusion using radiolabeled anticardiac myosin (Fab')2 antibody fragments in dogs. Our method involved brief periods of exposure to the (Fab')2 so that the levels of (Fab')2 binding indicated the degree of membrane disruption at discrete times during the progression of cell injury. In the first protocol (Fab')2 fragments labeled with either 125I and 131I were injected into the left circumflex coronary artery at the onset of reflow and at 45 min of reflow after a 1-h circumflex artery occlusion. Coronary sinus flow was diverted for 5 min following each injection to prevent recirculation. The (Fab')2 binding ratio (ischemic/control) increased during the first 45 min of reflow in each of eight experiments (mean increase 170%, P < 0.01). No significant increase in (Fab')2 binding was observed in five additional experiments in which nonspecific (Fab')2 was injected. This indicates that the increase in binding seen with antimyosin-specific (Fab')2 was due to changes in specific binding rather than to alterations in (Fab')2 delivery produced by changes in blood flow distribution. The increase in membrane damage during reflow was confirmed by a second protocol in which each animal received only a single left atrial injection of (Fab')2 followed by rapid excision of the heart. The (Fab')2 binding ratio was 1.7 ± 0.3 (SEM) in the group that received (Fab')2 at the onset of reflow and 3.7 ± 0.6 (SEM) (P < 0.05) in the group that received (Fab')2 after 45 min of reflow. In a third set of experiments in which hyperosmotic mannitol was infused during reflow the mean increase in (Fab')2 binding using the first protocol was only 80 ± 40 vs. 170 ± 30% without mannitol (P < 0.05). Thus, membrane damage develops early during coronary reperfusion following 1 h of circumflex coronary artery occlusion, and part of this membrane damage can be prevented by altering the conditions of reflow. A method involving brief exposure of the myocardium to antimyosin (Fab')2 is promising for detecting changes in membrane integrity during evolving ischemic injury.