The small G protein Rho and its target Rho-kinase may participate in the mechanisms underlying vascular contractile tone via inhibition of myosin light chain phosphatase. The present study has tested the hypothesis that Rho-kinase activity normally contributes to cerebral vascular tone in vivo, and that this effect is augmented during chronic hypertension. Comparative studies also examined the role of protein kinase C (PKC) in regulation of cerebral artery tone. Two Rho-kinase inhibitors, Y-27632 (0.1 to 100 micromol/L) and HA1077 (1 to 10 micromol/L), caused marked concentration-dependent increases in basilar artery diameter of anesthetized normotensive rats (Sprague-Dawley and Wistar-Kyoto [WKY] strains), as measured using a cranial window approach. By comparison, the selective PKC inhibitors calphostin C (0.01 to 0.5 micromol/L) and Ro 31-8220 (5 micromol/L) had little or no effect on basilar artery diameter. Vasodilator responses to Y-27632 were unaffected by PKC inhibition or activation. In two models of chronic hypertension (spontaneously hypertensive rats and WKY rats treated with N-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester for 4 weeks), Y-27632 elicited cerebral vasodilator responses that were significantly greater than in control WKY rats (P<0.05), indicating that the chronically hypertensive state and not genetic factors contributed to the increased responses to Rho-kinase inhibition. PKC inhibition had no significant effect on basilar artery diameter in chronically hypertensive rats. These data suggest that Rho-kinase, but not PKC, activity contributes substantially to cerebral artery tone in vivo, and this effect is augmented in the cerebral circulation during chronic hypertension.