The oxygen consumption of cerebral arterioles from anesthetized cats was measured using the Cartesian diver microrespirometer following in vitro incubation with 200 micrograms/ml of arachidonate or 50 micrograms/ml of 15-hydroperoxy-eicosatetraenoic acid (15-HPETE). Both agents depressed oxygen consumption severely. This effect was inhibited completely by a combination of superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase, indicating that it is mediated by oxygen radicals. Similar depression of oxygen consumption was observed during incubation of the vessels with xanthine oxidase and acetaldehyde as substrate. This enzymic system is known to generate superoxide and hydrogen peroxide. The effect of xanthine oxidase was also partially inhibited by SOD and catalase. The effect of arachidonate was partially inhibited by cyclooxygenase inhibitors. The effect of lipoxygenase inhibitors could not be adequately tested because they depressed oxygen consumption by themselves. Prostaglandins H2 and E2 had no effect on arteriolar oxygen consumption. The results show that arachidonate and 15-HPETE in high concentration depress cerebral arteriolar oxygen consumption via an oxygen radical-mediated mechanism. Furthermore, the radical is generated in the vessel wall and does not require either the brain parenchyma or the formed elements of the blood or the meninges for its production.