The role of the hypothalamus (HTH) in the pathogenesis of genetic hypertension was studied in spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR). It is currently believed that, in this strain, the genetic defect manifests itself mainly in the HTH. We examined this hypothesis by grafting HTH neurons from embryos of SHR or control Wistar Kyoto (WKY) rats into the HTH of adult normotensive WKY rats. Changes in host systolic blood pressure (SBP) were monitored, and alterations in vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) gene expression of the host brain were studied. In rats grafted with HTH tissue from SHR embryos (G- SHR), the blood pressure rose by 31% as compared with that in the grafted control group. The blood pressure climbed gradually over a period of 6 weeks to its highest level, which was maintained for at least 3 months following grafting. Along with the elevated blood pressure, the heart weight increased by 80% compared to controls. Behavioral changes were also evident in the G-SHR rats, and these were similar to those of the native SHR strain. In situ hybridization histochemistry showed a 40% elevation in VIP transcripts in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the host G-SHR brain compared to controls. These studies demonstrate that transplantation of embryonic SHR HTH tissue into brains of adult normotensive rats results in the development of hypertensive characteristics in the host. It thus appears that the HTH is a prime candidate for the source of changes leading to spontaneous hypertension in mammals.