Although free radical species (ROS; i.e., .O2-. .OH.H2O2) among other mediators, may be involved in altering the blood-brain barrier (BBB), little is known about the endogenous ability of cerebromicrovascular endothelium to generate ROS. This study examines the capacity of rat endothelial cells (RBEC) to produce ROS in normoxia and hypoxia/reoxygenation. Cultured RBEC were exposed to an oxygen-depleted atmosphere (containing 95% N2 and 5% CO2) for 4 hr at 37 degrees C and air (10 min) at room temperature to simulate "ischemia/reperfusion". Nitroblue tetrazolium (NBT) reduction [formation of nitroblue formazan (NBF)] served as a marker for the production of ROS. The release of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and [3H]arachidonic acid (AA) was used to assess cellular integrity. RBEC exposed to hypoxia/reoxygenation produced up to 59% greater NBF formation than controls without affecting the LDH or AA release. The production of ROS was calcium-dependent and not affected by AA or its metabolites. The findings indicate that the RBEC can produce superoxide dismutase (SOD)-inhibitable ROS which are augmented by hypoxia/reoxygenation. It is suggested that in vivo cerebromicrovascular endothelium may contribute to the formation of ROS and play a role in ischemic brain edema.