In this study, the protective effects of L-arginine treatment in vivo on vascular reactivity of streptozotocin (STZ)-induced 12-week-old diabetic rats were examined. Loss of weight, polydipsia, polyphagia, hyperglycemia, hypoinsulinemia, and elevated levels of plasma cholesterol and triglyceride were observed in diabetic rats. L-arginine treatment (1 mg/mL in drinking water) did not significantly affect these metabolic and biochemical abnormalities. Plasma malondialdehyde (MDA) levels in untreated diabetic rats were also significantly higher than untreated controls. However, L-arginine treatment prevented the increase in MDA level of plasma of diabetic rats. Contractile responses, but not sensitivity to noradrenaline (NA), were significantly increased in diabetic rats compared to controls. Treatment of diabetic rats with L-arginine completely prevented the increase in NA responses. Relaxation response to acetylcholine (ACh), but not to sodium nitroprusside (SNP), in diabetic aorta has been found to be significantly decreased as compared with controls. However, there were no significant differences in pD(2) values of acetylcholine in either of the groups. L-arginine treatment increased the ACh responses to the control level. All effects of L-arginine on vascular reactivity were found to be specific for diabetic rats and not controls. These results suggest that functional abnormalities occurred in aorta from diabetic rat might at least in part result from L-arginine deficiency, and the lipid peroxidation-lowering effect of L-arginine may account for its protective effect on vascular reactivity of diabetic rats. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.