We investigated the effect of acute lowering of blood pressure (BP) upon glomerular filtration rate (GFR) in hypertensive non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) patients, 14 with diabetic nephropathy and 12 with normoalbuminuria. The study was performed twice with the subjects receiving an intravenous injection of either clonidine (150 to 225 micrograms) or saline (0.154 mmol/liter). We assessed GFR, albuminuria, and BP. The two groups were well matched with respect to demographic data, baseline GFR and BP. Clonidine induced similar reductions in mean arterial blood pressure 19 (SE +/- 4) and 21 (SE +/- 3) mm Hg in patients with and without nephropathy, respectively. In the nephropathy group GFR diminished in average from 90 (SE +/- 6) to 81 (SE +/- 7) ml/min/1.73 m2 (P = 0.006), fractional clearance of albumin (x 10(-6)) declined from a geometric mean of 219 (antilog SE /divided by 1.3) to 186 (antilog SE /divided by 1.3) (P = 0.04), and four patients had a complete pressure-passive vasculature, defined as delta GFR% = delta MABP%. A significant correlation between relative reductions in MABP and GFR (r = 0.78, P < 0.001) was demonstrated in albuminuric patients. None of the normoalbuminuric patients had a complete pressure-passive vasculature and there were no significant differences in GFR between the two examinations, but five had abnormal autoregulation of GFR. Mean difference between changes in GFR (95% confidence interval) between the nephropathic and normoalbuminuric group was 5.5 (divided by 2.7 to 13.7) ml/min/1.73 m2 (P = 0.18). Our study suggests that hypertensive NIDDM patients, particularly patients with nephropathy, frequently suffer from impaired or abolished autoregulation of GFR.