Pericytes are cells localized at the abluminal side of the microvascular endothelium and completely enveloped by a basement membrane. Pericytes have close contact with endothelial cells and are probably involved in the regulation of endothelial cell functions. Previous studies suggested a role for pericytes in microvascular proliferation in tumors. To study this cell type, we isolated human brain pericytes from microvessel segments derived from autopsy brain tissue. These cells were characterized in vitro using a panel of monoclonal antibodies. Human brain pericytes were reactive with monoclonal antibodies directed against the high molecular weight-melanoma associated antigen and intercellular adhesion molecule-1, but only a minority of the cells expressed alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA, 0 to 10%) or vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (10 to 50%). In histologically normal human brain microvessels in situ, pericytes consistently lacked staining for these four markers. Tissue with microvascular proliferation, however, showed a marked pericyte staining for both alpha-SMA and high molecular weight-melanoma associated antigen. The expression of alpha-SMA in vitro could be slightly up-regulated by incubation with serum-containing medium. An increase in alpha-SMA expression up to 40% of the total cell population was seen when pericytes were treated with transforming growth factor-beta 1, whereas basic fibroblast growth factor slightly inhibited alpha-SMA expression. Incubation with other factors (platelet-derived growth factor-AA, heparin, interferon-gamma, tumor necrosis factor-alpha) had no effect on the alpha-SMA expression at all. Transforming growth factor-beta 1 thus induces smooth muscle-like differentiation in pericytes in vitro and might play a role in the activation of pericytes during angiogenesis in vivo.