Peptide-containing nerves have been examined in the rat femoral artery and vein using immunocytochemical and vasomotor techniques. The general neuronal marker PGP 9.5 revealed a moderate supply of nerve fibres and fascicles forming a loose network in the adventitia and the adventitial-medial border of the artery and vein. The majority of the nerve fibres in both the artery and vein displayed immunoreactivity for neuropeptide Y (NPY) and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH). The distribution pattern and number of these two types correlated well. The artery had a slightly richer PGP 9.5- immunoreactive nerve supply compared to the vein, but the nerve plexus in the vein displayed a more uniform arrangement. In contrast, relatively few nerve fibres displayed calcitonin gene-related peptide, substance P, or vasoactive intestinal peptide immunoreactivity in either the artery or vein. The calcitonin gene-related peptide immunoreactive fibres had a similar distribution to that of the substance P containing fibres. Using a sensitive in vitro method the vasomotor responses to perivascular peptides were characterized. In the femoral artery NPY potentiated alpha 1-adrenoceptor mediated contractions, and had very little effect by itself. In contrast, 10(-7) M NPY contracted femoral veins by up to 68% relative to 60 mM potassium induced contraction, and there was no potentiation of alpha-adrenoceptor mediated contractions. Acetylcholine, peptide histidine isoleucine, vasoactive intestinal peptide, substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide, all relaxed the contracted femoral artery and vein. Regarding the putative parasympathetic neurotransmitters, acetylcholine caused stronger relaxation of veins as compared to arteries whereas for vasoactive intestinal peptide and peptide histidine isoleucine the relaxations were stronger in the arterial preparation. These three agonists were more potent in the femoral vein. Substance P was more potent on the femoral vein, having the same maximum response in both preparations. On the other hand, the response induced by CGRP was some three times greater in the venous than in the arterial preparation. These data reveal that although there appear to be only minor differences in the peptidergic innervation of the rat femoral artery and vein pronounced differences occur in the peptide effector responses. The data support the concept that perivascular peptides play different roles in regulating various parts of the circulation.