In this study we investigated whether there exists a periodic contractile activity of the radial artery, and we evaluated the impact of such an oscillatory behavior on the mechanical properties of this medium-sized muscular vessel. The internal diameter of the right radial artery was measured noninvasively in six healthy male volunteers aged 18-42 yr using a high-precision ultrasonic echo-tracking device. Blood pressure was simultaneously recorded on the same side at the middle finger by photoplethysmography. The electrical activity of the heart was monitored during the entire experiment by electrocardiography. The frequency components of the arterial diameter, blood pressure, and heart rate were obtained using spectral analysis. Under resting conditions, the radial arterial diameter exhibited a spontaneous oscillation with a period ranging from 45 to 70 s and an amplitude of 80 +/- 14 microns (+/- SE). No very low-frequency mode (< or = 0.02 Hz) was identified in either heart rate or blood pressure. These diameter oscillations affected the distensibility-pressure curves acquired simultaneously. Thus the 3-4% oscillatory variation in arterial diameter was paralleled by a 1.5- to 2-fold change in distensibility. These low-frequency oscillations of large arteries seem to be mediated by an intrinsic vascular mechanism.