The effect of transient uteroplacental ischemia on nitric oxide (NO) levels, enzymatic activity, and expression of NO synthase (NOS) isoforms was studied in fetal rat brains. Fetuses were subjected to ischemia by clamping the uterine arteries for 5 min on gestational day 17 (GD17). At different times after ischemia, fetuses were delivered by Cesarean section under anesthesia to obtain the brains. Transient uteroplacental ischemia produced a time dependent increase in nitrite levels in the brain, reaching a maximum value (300 +/- 25% of baseline) 24 h after uterine artery occlusion and remaining elevated as long as 48 h. Significantly increased nitrite levels were found in the cerebral cortex but not in the mesencephalon and cerebellum. The ischemia-induced increment in nitrite levels was totally blocked by either L-NAME (10 mg/kg) or AMT (0.65 mg/kg) administered i.p. 1 h before uterine artery occlusion. Both Ca(2+)-dependent and Ca(2+)-independent NOS activities in the cerebral cortex remained significantly increased with respect to controls after 24 h following the ischemia. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction showed augmented levels of mRNAs for both nNOS and iNOS when compared with controls at 8 h after ischemia. At 36 h, nNOS mRNA returned to basal levels whereas eNOS mRNA levels increased and iNOS mRNA remained elevated. Our results show that the three NOS isoforms participate in increasing NO levels after transient ischemia and suggest a biphasic and differential regulation of the expression of constitutive NOS isoforms in the rat cerebral cortex.