We angiographically assessed the vasodilatory effects of vasopressin and oxytocin on the basilar arteries in dogs. Intracisternal bolus injections of vasopressin (100 pmol and 1 nmol) and oxytocin (1 and 10 nmol) produced dose-dependent increases in the internal diameter of the basilar arteries without affecting mean arterial blood pressure. The maximal dilatations of the basilar arteries induced by 1 nmol vasopressin and 10 nmol oxytocin were 142.3 +/- 19.9 and 136.8 +/- 25.5% of the baseline, respectively. When the same peptides were injected into the vertebral artery, the maximal dilatations were similar, but the duration of response was shorter. Pretreatment with intracisternal injection of 10 mumol NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA), which inhibits the synthesis of nitric oxide from L-arginine, suppressed the vasodilatory responses induced by intracisternal injection of vasopressin and oxytocin and by intraarterial injection of vasopressin. Calcitonin gene-related peptide also caused dilatation of the basilar artery when injected into the cisterna magna, but its effect was not blocked by L-NMMA. L-NMMA reduced the basal diameter of the basilar artery in a dose-dependent manner; L-arginine produced dose-dependent increases in diameter. The vasoconstriction induced by L-NMMA was reversed by high concentrations of L-arginine. These results suggest that vasopressin and oxytocin dilate the basilar arteries via the release of nitric oxide from both the intraluminal and the extraluminal sides and that synthesis and release of nitric oxide in the vascular wall contribute to maintenance of basal vascular tonus.