To study the regulation of hypothalamic vasopressin (VP) and oxytocin (OT) gene expression in relation to the development of hypertension, levels of VP mRNA and OT mRNA were determined in spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR). Differences in VP and OT mRNA content of the supraoptic nucleus (SON) and paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of 4- and 10-week-old SHR and Wistar-Kyoto controls (WKY) were quantitated by dot-blot and Northern blot analysis. VP and OT pituitary content and VP plasma levels were measured by radioimmunoassays. VP mRNA levels were approximately 2-fold and 3-fold higher in the SON and PVN of 4-week-old SHR, respectively, as compared to controls. The OT mRNA levels were approximately 35% lower in both nuclei of the SHR. There was no difference in VP and OT pituitary content between 4-week-old SHR and WKY, but VP plasma levels were higher in SHR. In the 10-week-old SHR VP mRNA levels were still approximately 30-40% higher and the OT mRNA levels were approximately 40% lower in both nuclei when compared to age-matched WKY. Pituitary VP and OT contents were respectively 1.5-fold higher and 20% lower in the 10-week-old SHR than in 10-week-old WKY. VP plasma levels were still elevated in the SHR. The data indicate that in the hypothalamo-neurohypophyseal system of the SHR the VP system is in a higher state of activity, while the OT system is lower in activity.