Treatment of female spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) and control Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) rats with captopril was carried out by the addition of the drug in the drinking water throughout pregnancy and lactation and after weaning. At 28 weeks of age, average systolic blood pressure of treated SHR was 113 +/- 3 mm Hg, which was below that of control SHR (188 +/- 3 mm Hg) and WKY rats (124 +/- 3 mm Hg). Body weight and heart rate of the SHR were not affected by the treatment. Tissue level of catecholamines was increased by captopril treatment in the superior cervical ganglia but remained unchanged in the plasma, heart, mesenteric arteries, and the adrenal glands of both SHR and WKY rats. Left ventricular weight, wall thickness, and internal diameter of the left ventricle in the SHR were reduced by the treatment. Morphometric measurements of the mesenteric arteries showed that vascular alterations present in the control SHR were prevented by the treatment. In the superior mesenteric artery and large mesenteric artery, smaller lumen size at maximal relaxation found in the control SHR was normalized to the level of the WKY rats. Hypertrophy of the medial wall in the superior mesenteric, large and small mesenteric arteries, and an increase in the number of smooth muscle cell layers in the large mesenteric artery of the SHR were prevented by the treatment. Perfusion study of the mesenteric vascular bed showed that reactivity of these vessels to norepinephrine was reduced, and sensitivity to norepinephrine (as determined by the effective dose that causes 50% of maximal response) was increased in the SHR by captopril treatment. Sensitivity of the tail artery in response to norepinephrine was not altered by the treatment. We conclude that long-term treatment with captopril of SHR before and after birth prevented the development of hypertension, structural and functional alterations of the mesenteric arteries, and cardiac hypertrophy.