Cardiovascular effects elicited by microinjection of L-S-nitrosocysteine in the nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS) were compared and contrasted with those produced by the dextroisomer, other nitric oxide donors and nitric oxide itself. L-S-nitrosocysteine produced dose-related decreases of arterial pressure and heart rate. In contrast, D-S-nitrosocysteine, S-nitrosoglutathione, glyceryl trinitrate, and sodium nitroprusside produced minimal responses that were not dose-related. Likewise, injection of cystine and nitric oxide, two products of S-nitrosocysteine breakdown, produced no significant response. Headspace analysis using chemiluminescence revealed that L- and D-S-nitrosocysteine released identical amounts of nitric oxide when exposed to homogenates of whole rat brain. Responses to L-S-nitrosocysteine were not affected by local injection of oxyhemoglobin or the nitric oxide synthase inhibitor L-nitroarginine methylester. Although injection of L-cysteine into the NTS produced responses similar to those seen with injection of L-S-nitrosocysteine, blockade of excitatory amino acid receptors with kynurenic acid inhibited responses to cysteine but not those to the nitrosothiol. The study demonstrates that S-nitrosocysteine is biologically active in the NTS. Its action is independent of release of nitric oxide from the nitrosothiol but may be mediated through stereoselective sites on target neurons.