The clinical and electroencephalographic (EEG) effects of the individual ketamine isomers were compared with the racemic mixture in five volunteers who received each drug on a separate occasion. Racemic ketamine 275 +/- 25 mg, s(+) ketamine 140 +/- 21 mg or R(-) ketamine 429 +/- 37 mg produced an anaesthetic state lasting 6 +/- 2 min (mean +/- SD). However, the EEG evaluation of the R(-) isomer revealed less overall slowing, and an absence of the large slow wave complexes produced by the S(+) isomer and the racemic mixture. The pharmacokinetic profiles for the individual isomers of ketamine did not differ significantly from the racemic mixture. Even though the apparent anaesthetic state produced in these healthy volunteers did not differ qualitatively between the three drug groups, recovery times (assessed using a standardized battery of psychometric tests) were consistently shorter following the individual isomers compared with the racemic mixture. The serum ketamine concentrations associated with regaining consciousness and orientation were consistent with an S(+):R(-) isomer potency ratio of 4:1. In terms of their ability to impair psychomotor function, the S(+):R(-) potency ratio varied from 3:1 to 5:1. After comparable degrees of CNS depression, we conclude that the more potent S(+) isomer of ketamine was associated with a more rapid recovery of psychomotor skills than the currently used racemic mixture.