The effect of acute lowering of arterial blood pressure upon kidney function in nephropathy was studied in 13 patients with long-term Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes. Ten normal subjects (six normotensive and four hypertensive) and five short-term Type 1 diabetic patients without nephropathy served as controls. Renal function was assessed by glomerular filtration rate (single bolus 51Cr-EDTA technique) and urinary albumin excretion rate (radial immunodiffusion). The study was performed twice within 2 weeks, with the subjects receiving an intravenous injection of either clonidine (225 micrograms) or saline (0.154 mmol/l). The arterial blood pressure was similar in the diabetic patients with nephropathy (mean 136 +/- 11 divided by 88 +/- mmHg) and in the non-diabetic control subjects (mean 140 +/- 25 divided by 92 +/- 15 mmHg). The clonidine injection induced similar reductions in mean arterial blood pressure in all three groups (16-18 mmHg). While glomerular filtration rate and urinary albumin excretion rate remained unchanged in both control groups after clonidine injection, glomerular filtration rate diminished from 78 to 71 ml/min per 1.73 m2 (p les than 0.01), and urinary albumin excretion declined from 1707 to 938 micrograms/min (p less than 0.01) in the patients with diabetic nephropathy. Our results suggest that an intrinsic vascular (arteriolar) mechanism underlying the normal autoregulation of glomerular filtration rate, i.e. the relative constancy of glomerular filtration rate that occurs in response to rather wide variations in perfusion pressure, is defective in diabetic nephropathy.