Enhanced sympathetic nerve activity is thought to play a role in the pathogenesis of hypertension. The purpose of the present study was to investigate the mechanisms underlying the enhanced vasocontractile response to perivascular stimulation of mesenteric arteries isolated from female spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR). Innervation of mesenteric small arteries was evaluated by immunohistochemistry and confocal microscopy while functional studies were conducted in a microvascular myograph. The distribution of nerve terminals immunoreactive for tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and neuropeptide Y (NPY) was similar in mesenteric small arteries from Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) and SHR rats. However, immunointensity of TH or NPY immunoreactivities were much higher in small arteries from SHR compared to WKY. Expressed as percentage of contractions elicited by 124 m M K<sup>+</sup>, concentration-response curves for noradrenaline (NA) and NPY were shifted leftward in SHR compared with WKY rats. The combination of noradrenaline (1 µ M) and NPY (10 n M) contracted mesenteric arteries from WKY and SHR to higher levels than compared to either contractile agent added alone. The NPY Y<sub>1</sub> receptor antagonist, BIBP 3226, inhibited these contractions with 87 ± 0.7 and 80 ± 1.3% (p < 0.05, n = 6) in arteries from WKY and SHR rats, respectively. In arteries incubated with the α<sub>1</sub>-adrenoceptor antagonist, prazosin, and preactivated with vasopressin, electrical field stimulation evoked contractions which were more pronounced in mesenteric arteries from SHR compared to WKY rats. BIBP 3226 partially inhibited these contractions. In vasopressin-activated arteries BIBP 3226 caused rightward shifts of the concentration-response curves for NPY in mesenteric arteries from SHR rats, but in addition it also abolished the maximal NPY contraction in arteries from WKY rats. In the presence of BIBP 3226, low concentrations (1 p M to 10 n M) of NPY caused relaxations in arteries from WKY, but not in segments from SHR rats. Mechanical removal of the endothelium abolished NPY relaxation in arteries from WKY. In arteries activated with vasopressin and exposed to either forskolin or sodium nitroprusside, the addition of NPY evoked contractions which were more pronounced in arteries from SHR compared to WKY arteries. The present study suggests that enhanced NPY content and vasoconstriction to NPY in arteries from hypertensive rats can contribute to the enhanced sympathetic nerve activity and vascular resistance in female hypertensive rats. Endothelial cell dysfunction as well as alterations in smooth muscle response to NPY seem to contribute to the enhanced vasoconstriction in arteries from hypertensive animals.