The objective of this investigation was to evaluate the role of hypertension in endothelial function, changes in which are known to be an early event of atherosclerosis. We assessed endothelial function in 13 subjects with normal blood pressure and 13 subjects with essential hypertension who had never been treated for hypertension or hyperlipidemia and who had no history of smoking or coronary or cerebrovascular disease. B-mode ultrasonography was used to measure the diameter of the brachial artery. Endothelium-dependent dilatation was assessed as the change in diameter of the artery during reactive hyperemia. Endothelium-independent dilatation was evoked, as a control, by sublingual administration of isosorbide dinitrate. Despite similar ages and lipid and glucose levels in the study groups, endothelium-dependent dilatation was less in patients with hypertension (13.1% +/- 1.6%) than in subjects with normal blood pressure (18.5% +/- 1.9%) (p < 0.05), whereas isosorbide dinitrate-induced changes were similar. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure were significantly correlated with endothelium-dependent vasodilatation (r = -0.57 and r = -0.53, respectively) but not with the change by isosorbide dinitrate. These results suggest that endothelial dysfunction exists in patients with hypertension and precedes overt atherosclerotic disease.