In order to assess effects of global ischemia in tasks of spatial learning and working memory, male Wistar rats were subjected to four vessel occlusion (4 VO) for periods of 5, 10, and 20 min and compared with sham-operated controls over four test phases, from 6 to 54 weeks after surgery. Rats were assessed on acquisition in the water maze, a task that is sensitive to ischemic impairments, before testing in Skinner box and water maze working memory tasks, which both require the short-term storage of information, but make different demands on spatial information processing. Phases 1 and 3 assessed spatial learning in a standard water maze procedure (12 and 10 training days, 2 trials/day with a 10-min intertrial interval: ITI). Phase 2 involved training and testing in delayed non-matching-to-position task in the Skinner box, with delays of 2-10 s between the information and choice stages. Phase 4 examined working memory in a water maze delayed matching-to-position task with 4 trials/day, an ITI of 30 s, and a novel platform position on each day. Ischemic rats showed duration-related impairments in water maze acquisition and working memory, but not in the less spatially demanding Skinner box task. Since water maze acquisition deficits were seen both before and after testing in the Skinner box the lack of effect cannot be attributed to time or to prior training. Ischemic deficits were more marked in Phase 3 than in Phase 1 of acquisition, suggesting that impairment may be progressive. Histological assessment showed that cell loss was largely confined to the hippocampal CA1 field and was linearly related to duration of occlusion. At the maximal level of loss (5.7 mm before the interaural line) the 20-min group showed 90% loss, the 10-min group 60% loss, and the 5-min group, which did not differ from controls, less than 10% loss. Only the 20-min group showed significant damage beyond the CA1 field, ranging from 30-40% loss in the CA3 field to 5% loss in one striatal area. No cortical damage was seen. The extent of CA1 cell loss correlated modestly with water maze acquisition (Phase 3) and working memory scores, but not with trials to criterion in the Skinner box task. There were significant correlations between different measures both within and between water maze tasks, but not Skinner box tasks, suggesting that the two types of procedure engaged different cognitive processes. The results indicate that the intrahippocampal damage induced by 4 VO impaired tasks which required processing of allocentric spatial information, but did not impair the storage of limited spatial information in working memory.