Nerve cells release nitric oxide (NO) in response to activation of glutamate receptors of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) subtype. We explored the hypothesis that NO influences the changes of cerebral blood flow (CBF) during cortical spreading depression (CSD), which is known to be associated with NMDA receptor activation. CBF was monitored in parietal cortex by laser-Doppler flowmetry in halothane-anesthetized rats. Under control conditions, CSD induced regular changes of CBF, which consisted of four phases: a brief hypoperfusion before the direct current (DC) shift; a marked CBF rise during the DC shift; followed by a smaller, but protracted increase of CBF; and a prolonged CBF reduction (the oligemia). NO synthase inhibition by intravenous and/or topical application of NG-nitro-L-arginine enhanced the brief initial hypoperfusion, but the CBF increases and the oligemia were unchanged. L-Arginine prevented the development of the prolonged oligemia after CSD but had no influence on the marked rise of CBF during CSD. Animals treated with L-arginine recovered the reduced vascular reactivity to hypercapnia after CSD much faster than control rats. Functional denervation of cortical and pial arterioles by tetrodotoxin accentuated the pre-CSD hypoperfusion and the oligemia but did not affect the CBF increases. The results suggest that NO is important for the changes of cerebrovascular regulation following CSD. The observations may have clinical importance, since CBF changes during migraine may be triggered by CSD.