In this study, we evaluated the effects of vitamin E an the vascular reactivity and structure of thoracic aorta from streptozotocin (STZ)-diabetic rats. Plasma glucose, cholesterol, and triglyceride concentrations in rats were increased markedly by STZ-diabetes. The thiobarbituric acid (TBA) reactivity revel as an index of lipid peroxidation was higher in both plasma and aorta of STZ-diabetic rats compared with controls. The rings of thoracic aorta with or without endothelium were mounted in organ chambers for measurement of isometric tension and were contracted by a single dose (10(-5) mol/L) and then cumulative doses of noradrenaline ([NA] 10(-9) to 10(-5) mol/L). Pretreatment with methylene blue (MB) or removal of the endothelium resulted in a similar degree of enhancement in NA-induced contraction of control rings. STZ-diabetes increased the fast and slow components of NA-induced contraction in air experiments. The maximal contractile response of aorta to NA was also augmented by STZ-diabetes, whereas the sensitivity (pD(2)) remained unaltered. STZ-diabetes resulted in significant increases in the maximum contractile response and sensitivity of aorta to KCl. STZ-diabetic rats showed a significant reduction in the percentage of endothelial response (PER). A group of diabetic rats was treated from the time of diabetes induction with a 0.5% dietary supplement of vitamin E. Vitamin E supplementation of STZ-diabetic rats eliminated accumulation of lipid peroxides and returned plasma triglycerides toward normal levels. Diabetes-induced abnormal contractility and endothelial dysfunction were significantly but not completely prevented by vitamin E treatment. The endothelium-independent relaxation response to sodium nitroprusside (SNP) was not affected by diabetes or vitamin E treatment. Electron microscopic examination of thoracic aorta revealed that normal tissue organization was disrupted in STZ-diabetic rats, and that vitamin E treatment can protect the morphological integrity of aorta against STZ-diabetes. The results suggest the following: (1) The increased triglycerides/lipid peroxides may be an important reason for morphological or functional disruption of endothelium and enhanced activation of contractile mechanisms of vascular smooth muscle in STZ-diabetic rats. Both contribute to an increased responsiveness of diabetic aorta to vasoconstrictor agents. (2) Vitamin E treatment of STZ-diabetic rats can prevent the development of abnormal contractility and structure and endothelial dysfunction in aorta. (3) The triglyceride- and/or lipid peroxidation-lowering effect of vitamin E may be crucial for the protective effect of this vitamin on the vasculature. Copyright (C) 1997 by W.B. Saunders Company.