The role that nitric oxide, an endothelium-derived relaxing factor, may play in the regulation of gastric mucosal defence was investigated by assessing the potential protective actions of this factor against the damage caused by ethanol in an ex vivo chamber preparation of the rat stomach. Topical application of glyceryl trinitrate and sodium nitroprusside, which have been shown to release nitric oxide, markedly reduced the area of 70% ethanol-induced hemorrhagic damage. Topical application of a 0.01% solution of authentic nitric oxide also significantly reduced the severity of mucosal damage. Pretreatment with indomethacin precluded the involvement of endogenous prostaglandins in the protective effects of these agents. The protective effects of NO were transient, since a delay of 5 minutes between NO administration and ethanol administration resulted in a complete loss of the protective activity. The protection against ethanol afforded by 10 micrograms/ml nitroprusside could be completely reversed by intravenous infusion of either 1% methylene blue or 1 mM hemoglobin, both of which inhibit vasodilation induced by nitric oxide. Intravenous infusion of 1% methylene blue significantly increased the susceptibility of the mucosa to damage induced by topical 20% ethanol. These results indicate that ethanol-induced gastric damage can be significantly reduced by nitric oxide. The mechanisms underlying the protective actions of nitric oxide are unclear, but may be related to its vasodilator or anti-aggregatory properties.