Responses of cerebral blood vessels to nitric oxide (NO) are mediated by soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC)-dependent and potentially by sGC-independent mechanisms. One sGC-independent mechanism by which NO may produce vasodilatation is inhibition of formation of a vasoconstrictor metabolite produced through the cytochrome P450 pathway. In these experiments, we examined the hypothesis that dilatation of cerebral microvessels in response to NO is dependent on activation of sGC. Diameters of cerebral arterioles (baseline diameter=94+/-5 micrometers, mean+/-S.E.) were measured using a closed cranial window in anesthetized rabbits. Under control conditions, YC-1 [3-(5'-hydroxymethyl-2'-furyl)-1-benzyl indazole], an NO-independent activator of sGC, produced vasodilation that was blocked by ODQ (1H-[1,2,4]oxadiazolo[4,3,-a]quinoxalin-1-one)(10 microM), an inhibitor of sGC. These findings indicate that sGC is functionally important in cerebral arterioles. In addition, acetylcholine (which stimulates endogenous production of NO by endothelium) produced dilatation of cerebral arterioles that was inhibited by ODQ. For example, 1 microM acetylcholine dilated cerebral arterioles by 34+/-7 and 5+/-1% in the absence and presence of ODQ (10 microM), respectively. Increases in arteriolar diameter in response to sodium nitroprusside (1 microM, an NO donor) were inhibited by approximately 80% by ODQ, but were not affected by 17-ODYA (10 microM) or clotrimazole (10 microM), inhibitors of the cytochrome P450 pathway. Thus, dilatation of the cerebral microcirculation in response to exogenously applied and endogenously produced NO is dependent, in large part, on activation of sGC.