This study was designed to determine if the improved hypothermia that can be achieved with cold perfusion of the right atrium is associated with improved atrial preservation. During 120 minutes of cardioplegic arrest, 7 dogs with occlusive caval cannulation underwent right atrial (RA) perfusion with cold blood and 7 dogs with a single atriocaval cannula served as controls. RA perfusion produced a lower atrial septal temperature than atriocaval cannulation, 96% less electrical activity during arrest, and a lesser prolongation of the A-H interval after reperfusion (40% versus 123%; p less than 0.01). At the end of arrest, compared with atriocaval cannulation, RA perfusion was associated with improved preservation of creatine phosphate (71 +/- 10% versus 40 +/- 7% of control; p less than 0.05) and a lower level of lactate in the RA wall (8 +/- 1 mumol/gm versus 15 +/- 2 mumol/gm; p less than 0.01). We conclude that improved hypothermia reduces electrical activity and anaerobic metabolism in the atrial myocardium during cardioplegic arrest and improves atrioventricular conduction following arrest.