1. There is growing evidence that an impairment in the function of nitric oxide synthase may play a role in the vascular complications of diabetes mellitus. The relaxation of resistance arteries from the mesenteric and hindlimb circulations of streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats and age-matched controls were investigated using two endothelium-dependent vasodilators, bradykinin and acetylcholine, and the endothelium-independent vasodilator sodium nitroprusside. The contractile responses to the α1-adrenergic agonist phenylephrine were also studied.

2. Endothelium-dependent relaxation to acetylcholine was impaired in the diabetic rats in arteries from both mesenteric and hindlimb circulations (hindlimb pEC50, 7.93 ± 0.08 in the control compared with 7.38 ± 0.10 in the diabetic rat; mesenteric pEC50, 7.47 ± 0.04 in the control compared with 6.65 ± 0.06 in the diabetic rat; unpaired t-test P < 0.0001). Bradykinin elicited relaxation in only the mesenteric arteries, and this was not attenuated in the diabetic rats compared with controls.

3. Endothelium-independent relaxation to sodium nitroprusside was similar in the two circulations and was not abnormal in the diabetic rats. There was no significant difference in constrictor responses to phenylephrine between diabetic rats and controls in either the hindlimb or mesenteric arteries, in contrast to an earlier study in which we showed increased sensitivity to noradrenaline.

4. The diabetic rats therefore demonstrated a specific impairment of receptor-mediated endothelium-dependent relaxation to acetylcholine. These results suggest that, in this diabetic model, the ability of the endothelium to relax arteries via nitric oxide may involve a defect of a specific signal transduction pathway, leading to reduced production of nitric oxide.

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