Although autoregulation of cerebral blood flow is well established, the response of cerebral capillary circulation to reduced cerebral perfusion pressure (CPP) is unclear. The objective of this study was to determine whether red cell flow velocity in individual capillaries of the cerebral cortex is maintained during acute decreases in CPP. Microcirculation of the superficial parietal cerebral cortex of adult barbiturate-anesthetized artificially ventilated rats was visualized using a new design of closed-perfused cranial window and epifluorescent-intensified video microscopy. Fluorescein-isothiocyanate-labeled red blood cells (FRBC) injected intravenously were used as markers of capillary flow. CPP, defined as mean arterial pressure minus intracranial pressure, was reduced by controlled hemorrhage or by stepwise elevation of local intracranial pressure. The movement of FRBC in the parenchymal capillary network was video recorded at each pressure level, and FRBC velocity in each capillary was measured off-line with use of the dual-window digital cross-correlation technique. FRBC flux in the capillaries was measured by automated cell counting. FRBC velocity at normal perfusion pressure was 1.47 +/- 0.58 (SD) mm/s and changed little in the perfusion pressure range of 70-120 mmHg. The autoregulatory index in this pressure range was 0.0049 mm.s-1.mmHg-1. Opening of previously unperfused capillaries was not observed. FRBC flux correlated with FRBC velocity, but the latter was maintained in a narrower range than FRBC flux, suggesting a decrease in capillary diameter or hematocrit with decreasing perfusion pressure. The results suggest that flow autoregulation is associated with the maintenance of capillary flow velocity and that capillary recruitment does not contribute to flow autoregulation in the rat cerebral cortex.