Deposits of beta-amyloid are apparent in ageing and Alzheimer's disease, but the role of this peptide in neurodegeneration is unclear. The free-radical theory of ageing may also account for Alzheimer-type degeneration and consequently links between free-radical generation and beta-amyloid have been sought. We demonstrate here that beta-amyloid interacts with endothelial cells on blood vessels to produce and excess of superoxide radicals, with attendant alterations in endothelial structure and function. The superoxide radical can scavenge endothelium-derived relaxing factor and produce potent oxidizing agents, which can cause lipid peroxidation and other degenerative changes. The alterations in vascular tone and endothelial damage are prevented by the oxygen-radical-scavenging enzyme superoxide dismutase. These observations suggest a normal vasoactive role for beta-amyloid as well as a mechanism by which beta-amyloid may play a role in vascular abnormalities and neurodegeneration mediated by free radicals.