1. We have studied the number of phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase (PNMT)-containing nerve cells in the medulla and the activity of PNMT in the medulla, spinal cord and hypothalamus of the rat.

2. At 4 weeks of age there was an increase in the number of PNMT cells counted in the medulla of the spontaneously hypertensive rat (SHR; 21%, P < 0.01) and the stroke-prone spontaneously hypertensive rat (SHR-SP; 22%, P < 0.01) compared with the Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) control rat.

3. At 4 months of age there were no significant differences in the number of medullary PNMT cells in two normotensive strains (WKY and Fisher rats), two genetically hypertensive strains (SHR and SHR-SP) and in DOCA-salt hypertensive rats.

4. In four week old rats the activity of PNMT was increased by about 50% in the spinal cord and medulla of the SHR and SHR-SP compared with the WKY rats, and immunotitration experiments suggest that this is due to an increased concentration of enzyme.

5. At 4 months of age there were no increases in PNMT activity of either genetically hypertensive rats or DOCA-salt hypertensive rats.

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