We injected nitric oxide (NO)-releasing compounds and NO synthase (NOS) inhibitors into the brains of conscious, freely moving rats and measured the effects on mean arterial blood pressure (MAP) and heart rate, as well as on the expression of c-fos mRNA, neuronal NOS (nNOS) mRNA and NADPH-diaphorase, an indicator of NOS activity. When administered i.c.v., the NO donor, NOC-18, caused a significant fall in MAP and heart rate, whereas the NOS inhibitor, NG-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (L-NAME), induced a significant rise in MAP. The same dose of NOC-18 or L-NAME when administered i.v. did not affect MAP and heart rate. Centrally administered NOC-18 induced c-fos mRNA expression in several regions of the brain involved in the baroreceptor response, including the nucleus of the solitary tract, the area postrema and the rostral ventrolateral medulla, as well as areas involved in the integration of autonomic, neuroendocrine and behavioural responses, including the medial preoptic area, the organum vasculosum lamina terminalis, the bed nucleus of stria terminalis, the paraventricular nucleus (PVN), the supraoptic nucleus (SON), the central nucleus of amygdala (CeA) and the locus coeruleus. Most of the areas that expressed c-fos also contained nNOS mRNA and/or NADPH-d-positive neurones and fibres. i.c.v. injection of L-NAME induced c-fos mRNA expression in PVN, SON, locus coeruleus and NTS, suggesting a tonic inhibition of neuronal activity by NO or stimulation of neuronal activity by endogenous NO. i.v. injection of NOC-18 or L-NAME did not induce any significant c-fos mRNA expression in rat brain. These results demonstrate that NO acts directly in the brain to reduce the systemic blood pressure, and that the endogenous NO pathway may play a role in cardiovascular and autonomic regulation by modulating neuronal activities in discrete regions of the brain.