Endothelial dysfunction is an important early event in atherogenesis. Changes in arterial endothelial physiology were studied in patients with severe primary hypercholesterolaemia participating in an ongoing clinical trial evaluating atorvastatin and simvastatin. Endothelial function was assessed non-invasively using brachial ultrasound and the primary outcome measure was flow-mediated endothelium-dependent dilatation (FMD) in response to reactive hyperaemia. Patients were studied upon entry while still using simvastatin 40 mg daily and again after a 10-week washout (baseline). Over the next 30 weeks, 20 patients received atorvastatin titrated up to 80 mg daily and 12 patients received simvastatin titrated up to 40 mg daily (plus cholestyramine 4 g daily in 10/12), followed by a final ultrasound study. During simvastatin washout, total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol rose by a median 23-29% and 30-34%, respectively. During atorvastatin therapy, total and LDL cholesterol fell by a median of 41 and 46%, respectively, triglycerides fell by 45%, and high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol rose by 10%. During simvastatin plus cholestyramine therapy, the respective median changes were - 32, - 39, - 44 and + 11%. Patients at baseline showed evidence of impaired FMD and this improved significantly on either treatment, from a median + 2.2 to + 5.5% on atorvastatin and from + 1.8 to + 4.5% on simvastatin plus cholestyramine (P < 0.01 for both treatments). Typical response in healthy subjects would be from + 8 to + 9%. FMD at baseline was correlated with HDL cholesterol (r=0.49, P < 0.01). Change in FMD was inversely correlated with baseline FMD (r=-0.54, P < 0.001). Endothelial dysfunction in primary hypercholesterolaemia was improved by treatment with atorvastatin or simvastatin plus cholestyramine and this effect may result in the prevention of future coronary events.