High-dose aqueous extracts from artichoke leaves were found to inhibit cholesterol biosynthesis from 14C-acetate in primary cultured rat hepatocytes in a concentration-dependent biphasic manner with moderate inhibition (approximately 20%) between 0.007 and 0.1 mg/ml and more strong inhibition at 1 mg/ml. Cytotoxic effects detected by lactate dehydrogenase leakage and the 3-[4, 5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2,5-dephenyl tetrazolium bromide-assay were restricted to higher concentrations. Replacement of 14C-acetate by 14C-mevalonate largely omitted the inhibiting effect of artichoke extracts indicating an inhibition at the level of hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA-reductase. However, no direct inhibition of this enzyme could be detected and no other enzymic steps later in the biosynthetic pathway for cholesterol seemed to be affected. Instead, inhibition was found to occur in a time-dependent manner, to last for several hours even after washing out the extracts by fresh medium and to be fully reversible within 20 hr after removal of the extracts. In addition, the stimulation of HMGCoA-reductase activity by insulin was efficiently blocked by the extracts, although other insulin-dependent phenomena, such as increased lactate production, were not influenced. These results suggest an indirect modulation of hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA-reductase activity as the most likely inhibitory mechanism of the artichoke extracts. Screening of several known constituents of artichoke extracts revealed that cynaroside and particularly its aglycone luteolin were mainly responsible for inhibition, whereas chlorogenic acid was much less effective and caffeic acid, cynarin and other dicaffeoylquinic acids were without significant influence. Indeed, luteolin also efficiently blocked the insulin effect on cholesterol biosynthesis. In conclusion, these results demonstrate that artichoke extracts may inhibit hepatic cholesterol biosynthesis in an indirect but efficient manner and, thus, may contribute via this action to the recently confirmed hypolipidemic influence of this phytopharmacon in man.