We have previously shown that estrogen treatment increases cerebrovascular cyclooxygenase-1, prostacyclin synthase, and production of prostacyclin. Therefore, vascular tone and prostanoid production were measured to investigate functional consequences of estrogen exposure. Middle cerebral arteries were isolated from ovariectomized female Fischer-344 rats with or without chronic in vivo 17beta-estradiol treatment. In vivo 17beta-estradiol treatment increased cerebral artery diameter; functional endothelium was required for expression of these differences. The nonspecific cyclooxygenase inhibitor indomethacin constricted, whereas arachidonic acid dilated, cerebral arteries from estrogen-treated animals. Estrogen exposure increased production of prostacyclin by cerebral arteries. Conversely, in estrogen-deficient animals, indomethacin dilated and arachidonic acid constricted cerebral blood vessels. This correlated with vasorelaxation following inhibition of the thromboxane-endoperoxide receptor with SQ-29548 but not after selective blockade of thromboxane synthase with furegrelate, suggesting prostaglandin endoperoxide (i.e., PGH2) activity. Removal of the endothelium or selective blockade of cyclooxygenase-1 with SC-560 abolished estrogen-mediated differences in the effects of arachidonate on vessel diameter and on prostacyclin production by cerebral arteries. These data suggest 17beta-estradiol decreases cerebrovascular tone by shifting the primary end product of the endothelial cyclooxygenase-1 pathway from the constrictor prostaglandin PGH2 to the vasodilator prostacyclin. These effects of estrogen may contribute to the heightened thromboresistance and enhanced cerebral blood flow documented in pre-versus postmenopausal women.