Different types of platelets in various types of plasma were subjected to levels of shear stress that produce irreversible platelet aggregation in normal platelet-rich plasma (PRP). At shear stresses of 90 or 180 dyne/cm2 applied for 30 seconds or five minutes, aggregation was either absent or only transient and reversible using severe von Willebrand's disease (vWD) PRP (less than 1% von Willebrand factor, vWF); Bernard-Soulier syndrome (BSS) PRP (platelets deficient in the membrane glycoprotein Ib, GPIb); normal PRP plus monoclonal antibody (MoAb) to GPIb; thrombasthenic PRP (platelets deficient in membrane glycoprotein IIb-IIIa complex, GPIIb-IIIa); and normal PRP plus MoAb to GPIIb-IIIa. Shear-induced aggregation was inhibited under the above conditions, even though the platelets were activated to release their granular contents. Sheared normal platelets in vWD plasma aggregated in response to added vWF. These studies demonstrate that the formation of stable platelet aggregates under conditions of high shear requires vWF and the availability of both GPIb and GPIIb-IIIa on platelet membranes. The experiments demonstrate that vWF-platelet interactions can occur in the absence of artificial agonists or chemical modification of vWF. They suggest a possible mechanism for platelet aggregation in stenosed or partially obstructed arterial vessels in which the platelets are subjected to relatively high levels of shear stress.