Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is a 36-amino-acid polypeptide which coexists with catecholamines in many adrenergic and noradrenergic neurons. It has been demonstrated to exert pressor effects in the perfused guinea pig heart and to constrict large cerebral and coronary blood vessels in animal studies. To determine if NPY might be a human coronary vasoconstrictor, the authors studied its effect on postmortem human coronary arteries. Proximal epicardial coronary rings were studied in a superfusion apparatus in Krebs-Ringer bicarbonate buffer (37 degrees C, pH 7.4) presaturated with 95% O2-5% CO2. Concentration-response curves were obtained using NPY in 0.1% bovine serum albumin in buffer and the responses were compared to those obtained in the presence of alpha 1, beta, and cyclooxygenase antagonists. A dose-related constrictor effect was obtained with NPY, which was significantly more potent than noradrenaline, constriction often being seen at 10(-12) M concentration. A vasorelaxant effect was seen in nonatherosclerotic vessels at higher concentrations. The vasoconstriction produced by noradrenaline was potentiated by subthreshold concentrations of NPY. The vasoconstrictor effect of NPY was not inhibited by prazosin (10(-6) M), and the vasodilatory effect was not inhibited by propranolol (10(-5) M). Indomethacin (3 X 10(-6) M) did not alter either vasoconstriction or vasorelaxation. The authors conclude that NPY is a potent constrictor of the human coronary artery at concentrations that may be achievable in vivo; it may thus be a contributor to sympathetic enhancement of coronary artery tone.