OBJECTIVE To evaluate the influence of hypercholesterolaemia on arterial distensibility. MATERIAL AND METHODS 43 male New Zealand White rabbits, with similar ages and weights, were included in the present study. The animals were divided in two groups: Group A (n = 15) was fed a normal diet; Group B (n = 28) was fed normal diet plus 0.1% cholesterol. at the beginning and after 6 and 9 months, blood samples were obtained for determination of serum cholesterol (total, esterified, LDL) and Triglyceride levels. Pulse wave velocity (PWV) was also evaluated, by mecanography, after 6 and 9 months of the beginning of the experiment. After 6 months (Group A = 4 and Group B = 7) and 9 months (Group A = 6 and Group B = 7) of the experiment, some animals were killed for anatomopathological studies. RESULTS Major differences were obtained between the two groups, specially in what concerns to LDL and cholesterol levels (p < 0.001). There was also a remarkable difference in PWV between the two groups (6.078 +/- 0.162/9.002 +/- 0.196 m/s at 6 months and 7.639 +/- 0.590/9.557 +/- 0.543 m/s at 9 months) from the rabbits fed normal or cholesterol diet, respectively. The anatomical lesions were only significant after 9 months. However there was a decrease in aorta internal diameters at thoracic and renal levels at 6 months (34% and 53%) and at 9 months (29% and 33%), without significant changes in their thickness. In the heart, the left ventricle (LV) had a significant thickness increase after 6 months (about 43%). CONCLUSIONS These data indicate that even before anatomical lesions had occurred, important functional changes are present, in the arterial wall. Then, the evaluation of the PWV could be a promising non-invasive diagnostic method of early atherosclerosis, with obvious implications concerning its prophylaxis and therapy.