The calcium ionophore A23187 causes endothelium-dependent contractions in canine basilar arteries. Removal of the endothelium, or treatment with indomethacin or superoxide dismutase (SOD), prevented the endothelium-dependent excitatory effect of the calcium ionophore. Catalase and deferoxamine were without effect. Superoxide anion generated by xanthine plus xanthine oxidase in the presence of catalase caused contractions of the vascular smooth muscle, which were abolished by SOD or heat inactivation of xanthine oxidase. The A23187-induced production of prostaglandins F2 alpha and E2 and thromboxane B2 was abolished by the removal of endothelium and by treatment with indomethacin but was not affected by the presence of SOD plus catalase. These observations are consistent with the hypothesis that superoxide anion, rather than prostaglandins generated by hydroperoxidase activity of cyclooxygenase, is an endothelium-derived contracting factor in canine cerebral arteries.