Although there is substantial evidence concerning the influence of nicotine on nitric oxide (NO) synthesis in the vascular system, there are fewer studies concerning the central nervous system. Although NO metabolites (nitrates/nitrites) increase in several rat brain regions after chronic injection of nicotine, the cellular origin of this rise in NO levels is not known. The aim of the present work was to assess the effects of repetitive nicotine administration on nitric oxide synthase (NOS) expression and activity in male and female rat brains. To determine levels of nitrate/nitrite, the Griess reaction was carried out in tissue micropunched from the frontal cortex, striatum, and accumbens of both male and female rats untreated (naive) or injected with saline or nicotine (0.4 mg/kg for 15 days). In parallel, coronal sections of fixed brains from equally treated animals were immunostained for neuronal NOS or histochemically labelled for NADPH-diaphorase activity. Nicotine treatment increased NO metabolites significantly in all brain regions compared with naive or saline-treated rats. By contrast, analysis of the planimetric counting of NOS/NADPH-diaphorase-positive neurons failed to demonstrate any significant effect of the nicotine treatment. A significant decrease was observed with both techniques employed in saline-injected female rats compared with naive animals, suggesting a stress response. The mismatch between the biochemical and the histological data after chronic nicotine treatment is discussed. The up-regulation of NO sources other than neurons is proposed. (C) 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.