Elucidation of the role of (elevated) endogenous atrial natriuretic factor (ANF) in chronic heart failure has been hampered by a lack of specific inhibitors. We used a newly developed monoclonal antibody that has been shown to specifically block both exogenously and endogenously released ANF in vivo. For assessment of the vasodilatory action of ANF in chronic heart failure, either this antibody against ANF or ascites (control serum) was injected in rats with myocardial infarction and failure and in sham animals. Ascites did not alter central hemodynamics in either the sham or infarcted group. Antibody significantly increased right atrial pressure, left ventricular end-diastolic pressure, and systemic vascular resistance (SVR) in the infarction group but did not affect these variables in the sham group. Because renal blood flow, as measured by radioactive microspheres, decreased significantly in all four groups, probably due to nonspecific renal vasoconstrictor effects of the ascites, a separate group of infarcted animals was treated with purified ANF antibody (devoid of nonspecific effects) or mouse IgG as a control injection. In these animals, right atrial pressure increased from 1.1 +/- 0.7 to 2.6 +/- 0.7 mm Hg (p less than 0.001). Although SVR, renal blood flow velocity (measured by Doppler probe), and renal vascular resistance did not change in the infarcted animals after administration of purified ANF antibody, a significant correlation was found between baseline plasma ANF values and the change in SVR exerted by purified ANF antibody (r = 0.758, p less than 0.02, n = 9); that is, SVR increased in rats with high baseline plasma ANF (greater than 350 pg/ml), but decreased in animals with plasma ANF less than 200 pg/ml. These results suggest that moderately elevated endogenous plasma ANF levels in chronic heart failure do affect central hemodynamics, primarily by reducing venous pressure (e.g., by decreasing intravascular volume or by venous dilation). Arterial vasodilation, however, appears to emerge when plasma ANF is greatly increased.