Neonatal sympathectomy of spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) and control Wistar-Kyoto rats (WKY) was performed by a combined treatment with antiserum to nerve growth factor and guanethidine during the first 4 weeks after birth. The development of hypertension was completely prevented in the treated SHR: at 28 to 30 weeks of age, systolic blood pressure of treated SHR was 139 +/- 2 mm Hg as compared with 195 +/- 8 mm Hg in untreated SHR. The extent of sympathectomy was verified by histofluorescence. Fluorescence histochemistry for catecholamine-containing nerves showed a complete absence of adrenergic nerves in the mesenteric arteries of treated rats. A supersensitivity to norepinephrine was exhibited by mesenteric arteries, anococcygeus muscle, and tail arteries from the treated SHR and WKY. In the mesenteric vascular bed, maximal response to norepinephrine was significantly reduced by sympathectomy. Sympathectomy also abolished the responses (e.g., generation of excitatory junctional potentials) of tail arteries to electrical stimulation of perivascular nerves. Morphometric measurements of three categories of mesenteric arteries showed that sympathectomy had no effect on the hypertrophic change of smooth muscle cells in the conducting vessels, but it prevented the hyperplastic changes of the muscle cells from reactive, muscular arteries and small resistance vessels. These results suggest that one of the primary roles of the overactive sympathetic nervous system in the development of hypertension in SHR is manifested through its trophic effect on the arteries of SHR. This trophic effect appears to cause a hyperplastic change in the smooth muscle cells in the reactive and resistance vessels, thereby contributing to the development of hypertension in older SHR.