To investigate the role of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) in penile erection in relation to the effect of prostaglandin E1 (PGE1) male adult New Zealand white rabbits were utilized as a model to study intracavernous pressure (ICP) in vivo. After intracavernous injection of PGE1 (0.2-1.6 micrograms/kg) and 8-bromocyclic adenosine monophosphate (8-Br-cAMP, 0.5-1.5 mg/kg), both drugs raised the ICP in a dose-dependent manner. The increased ICPs induced by PGE1 and 8-Br-cAMP were 33.4 +/- 8.12 and 24.1 +/- 4.9 mm Hg, respectively (p < 0.05, paired Student's t test). Administrations of cyclic adenosine monophosphothioate, Rp-isomer (cAMP antagonist, 0.02-0.08 mumol/kg) prior to PGE1 injections inhibited the effect of PGE1 in vivo in a dose-dependent manner. The systemic blood pressures and heart rates in rabbits were unchanged during all the intracavernous injections. The corpus cavernosal tissues isolated from rabbits were studied for the cAMP contents after incubation of different doses of PGE1 in vitro. The cAMP contents were also elevated in a manner parallel with the increases in PGE1 concentrations (3-9 microM). We conclude: (1) the feasibility of intracavernous injection of vasoactive drugs is similar to that in man, thus the rabbit can be used as a suitable alternative for the studies of penile erection, and (2) cAMP is mediated in PGE1-induced relaxation of the rabbit corpus cavernosum, and the cAMP system only participates partially in penile erection.