Ultrasound high resolution B-mode imaging of human arteries allows in vivo an accurate and non-invasive determination of the thickness of the intimal-medial complex. A computer assisted procedure to measure this parameter at the level of common carotid arteries was developed. The average difference between duplicate thickness determinations was 4.6%. The thickness of the intimal medial complex of common carotid arteries was then measured in a group of hypercholesterolemic patients. This parameter was significantly greater in these patients as compared to controls (P less than 0.001). The prevalence of small plaques in the carotid arterial tree was also significantly increased in patients. Analysis of data showed that in controls, but not in patients, the thickness of the intimal medial complex increases with age (r = 0.46, P less than 0.05). Within the hypercholesterolemic group, intimal-medial complex values were greater in male patients and in smokers. It is concluded that the common carotid arteries of hypercholesterolemic patients show thickening of the intimal-medial complex. Cigarette smoking, male sex and age increase the extent of this modification. The determination of this parameter using a non-invasive technique may represent an important tool to monitor in vivo the progression and/or the regression of early atherosclerosis in man.