BACKGROUND Cerebral arteriolar tone is modulated in response to changes in transmural pressure and luminal flow. The effect of flow on the relation between pressure and diameter has not been fully evaluated in these vessels. This study was conducted to investigate this interaction and to determine the role of the endothelium in mediating it. METHODS Rat pial arterioles from the territory of the posterior cerebral artery were mounted in a perfusion myograph. In some arterioles, the endothelium was removed by air perfusion. Diameters were recorded at pressures from 20 to 200 mmHg in the presence and absence of flow (10 microl/min). The response to flow (0-30 microl/min) was recorded at 60 and 120 mmHg. RESULTS In the absence of flow, endothelium-intact arterioles demonstrated tone at distending pressures between 40 and 140 mmHg. In the presence of flow, tone did not develop until pressure exceeded 100 mmHg, and the vessels remained active at pressures up to 200 mmHg. Endothelium-denuded arterioles developed tone at the same pressure when perfused as when unperfused, but perfused vessels were able to maintain active tone at higher pressures. At 60 mmHg, flow caused dilation if the endothelium was intact and constriction if it had been removed. At 120 mmHg, flow caused constriction. Endothelium-dependent flow-relaxation was inhibited by N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (10(-5) M) and abolished by indomethacin (10(-5) M). CONCLUSION Flow inhibits the development of pial arteriolar tone at low intraluminal pressures through endothelium-dependent mechanisms. Conversely, perfusion extends the upper limit of the myogenically regulated pressure range through endothelium-independent activation of arteriolar smooth muscle contraction.