The purpose of this study was to examine comprehensively and quantitatively the effects of sustained hypertension and hypotension on neuronal expression of Fos, the protein product of the proto-oncogene c-fos, in the brain of conscious rabbits. Hypertension or hypotension was produced by continuous intravenous infusion of phenylephrine or nitroprusside, at a rate sufficient to increase or decrease, respectively, arterial pressure by 20-30 mmHg, maintained for a period of 60 min. In comparison with a sham control group of rabbits that were infused with the vehicle solution alone, hypertension induced a significant increase in Fos immunoreactivity in the area postrema, the nucleus tractus solitarii, the caudal and intermediate ventrolateral medulla, the lateral parabrachial nucleus and the central nucleus of the amygdala. Double-labelling for tyrosine hydroxylase and Fos immmunoreactivity showed that few (approximately 5%) of the Fos-positive neurons in the caudal and intermediate ventrolateral medulla in this group of animals were also positive for tyrosine hydroxylase. Hypotension also produced a significant increase in Fos immunoreactivity in the above regions, as well as in the rostral ventrolateral medulla, the A5 area, the locus coeruleus and subcoeruleus, the paraventricular nucleus, the supraoptic nucleus, the arcuate nucleus and the medial preoptic area. Approximately 65% of neurons in the rostral, intermediate and caudal ventrolateral medulla that expressed Fos following hypotension were also positive for tyrosine hydroxylase. Similarly, in the pons, approximately 75% of Fos-positive cells in the locus coeruleus, subcoeruleus and A5 area were positive for tyrosine hydroxylase. In the hypothalamus, 92% of Fos-positive neurons in the supraoptic nucleus, and 37% of Fos-positive neurons in the paraventricular nucleus, were immunoreactive for vasopressin. Our results demonstrate that hypertension and hypotension induce reproducible and specific patterns of Fos expression in the brainstem and forebrain. The distribution patterns and chemical characteristics of Fos-positive neurons following sustained hypertension or hypotension are significantly different. In particular, hypotension, but not hypertension, caused Fos expression in many tyrosine hydroxylasepositive cells within all pontomedullary catecholamine cell groups.