PURPOSE The objectives of this study were to (1) determine whether endogenous vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) triggers diabetic blood-retinal barrier breakdown, and (2) identify the site as well as phenotype of the hyperpermeable diabetic retinal vessels. METHODS Retinal VEGF mRNA levels were quantified in 1-week diabetic rats using the RNase protection assay. VEGF bioactivity was blocked via the systemic administration of a highly specific VEGF-neutralizing soluble Flt/F(c) construct (VEGF TrapA(40)). An inactive IL6 receptor/F(c) construct (IL6R Trap) was used as an isotype control. Blood-retinal barrier breakdown was quantified using the Evans blue technique and was spatially localized with fluorescent microspheres. RESULTS Retinal VEGF mRNA levels in 1-week diabetic animals were 3.2-fold higher than in nondiabetic controls (P < 0.0001). Similarly, retinal vascular permeability in 8-day diabetic animals was 1.8-fold higher than in normal nondiabetic controls (P < 0.05). Diabetes-induced blood-retinal barrier breakdown was dose-dependently inhibited with VEGF TrapA(40), with 25 mg/kg producing complete inhibition of the diabetes-induced increases (P < 0.05). Blood-retinal barrier breakdown in diabetic animals treated with solvent alone or IL6R Trap did not differ significantly from untreated diabetic animals (P > 0.05). Spatially, early blood-retinal barrier breakdown was localized to the retinal venules and capillaries of the superficial retinal vasculature. CONCLUSIONS Early blood-retinal barrier breakdown in experimental diabetes is VEGF dependent and is restricted, in part, to the venules and capillaries of the superficial inner retinal vasculature. VEGF inhibition should prove a useful therapeutic approach in the treatment of early diabetic blood-retinal barrier breakdown.