In this study, an in vitro model of the blood-brain barrier, consisting of porcine brain-derived microvascular endothelial cells (BMEC), was used to evaluate the mechanism of hypoxia-induced hyperpermeability. We show that hypoxia-induced permeability in BMEC was completely abolished by a neutralizing antibody to vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). In contrast, under normoxic conditions, addition of VEGF up to 100 ng/ml did not alter monolayer barrier function. Treatment with either hypoxia or VEGF under normoxic conditions induced a twofold increase in VEGF binding sites and VEGF receptor 1 (Flt-1) mRNA expression in BMEC. Hypoxia-induced permeability also was prevented by the nitric oxide (NO) synthase inhibitor NG-monomethyl-L-arginine, suggesting that NO is involved in hypoxia-induced permeability changes, which was confirmed by measurements of the cGMP level. During normoxia, treatment with VEGF (5 ng/ml) increased permeability as well as cGMP content in the presence of several antioxidants. These results suggest that hypoxia-induced permeability in vitro is mediated by the VEGF/VEGF receptor system in an autocrine manner and is essentially dependent on reducing conditions stabilizing the second messenger NO as the mediator of changes in barrier function of BMEC.