Increased intrahepatic resistance in cirrhotic livers is in part caused by increased vascular tone. Several morphological abnormalities have been described in the sinusoidal endothelial cells of cirrhotic livers, but the functional impact of these abnormalities on the intrahepatic vascular tone has not been studied. The aim of this study was to investigate the intrahepatic endothelial function and the role of nitric oxide (NO) with regard to vascular tone in cirrhotic livers. Isolated rat liver perfusions were performed in cirrhotic rats (induced by chronic carbon tetrachloride inhalation) and weight-matched normal controls. After preconstricting the intrahepatic microcirculation with methoxamine (10(-4) mol/L), response to cumulative doses of receptor-mediated endothelial agonist, acetylcholine (10(-7) mol/L-10(-5) mol/L), was obtained. In another series, response to the receptor-independent endothelial agonist, calcium ionophore A23187 (10(-7) mol/L and 3 x 10(-7) mol/L), was obtained in the absence and presence of Nomega-nitro-L-arginine (NNA) and indomethacin. In a third series of rats, nitrate and nitrite production was measured in the perfusate of perfused normal and cirrhotic livers. There was significantly less vasorelaxation in cirrhotic livers as compared with normal livers in response to acetylcholine and calcium ionophore A23187 (P < .0001). The impaired vasorelaxation was a result of a decrease in both NO-mediated and non-NO-mediated components of vasorelaxation. Cirrhotic livers from ascitic rats had significantly less vasorelaxation as compared with livers from nonascitic rats (P < .005). There was significantly less production of nitrates and nitrites in cirrhotic livers (P < .05). The liver microcirculation of cirrhotic livers is characterized by endothelial dysfunction that results in impaired release of endothelial relaxing factors including NO.