1. Hyperpolarization of vascular muscle in response to activation of potassium channels is a major mechanism of vasodilatation. 2. In cerebral blood vessels, two potassium channels have received considerable study recently: ATP-sensitive and calcium-dependent potassium channels. Activation of these potassium channels appears to play a major role in the relaxation of cerebral arteries and arterioles in response to diverse stimuli, including receptor-mediated agonists, intracellular second messengers, reactive oxygen species and hypoxia. 3. The functional influence of ATP-sensitive and calcium-dependent potassium channels may be altered in disease states, including hypertension, diabetes and subarachnoid haemorrhage.