In the central nervous system, nitric oxide has been proposed to be a retrograde messenger mediating learning and synaptic plasticity. Since only pretraining injections of nitric oxide synthesis inhibitors were shown to impair learning, we examined the possibility that systemic administration of these inhibitors might influence some non-specific aspects related to the organism's general psychophysiological status. Intraperitoneal administration of NG-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (30 or 100 mg/kg) 60 min pre-test to adult rats resulted in: (i) altered exploratory pattern and reduced locomotion in a novel environment; (ii) reduced startle response to either acoustic or electric stimuli; and (iii) cardiovascular alterations. In addition, intracerebroventricular administration of N-nitro-L-arginine (10 microliters of a 10 mM solution) diminished the acoustic startle response. Specificity of these effects through nitric oxide was supported by the ability of the nitric oxide precursor, L-arginine, to prevent the inhibitors actions. These findings indicate that nitric oxide inhibitors interfere with the general psychophysiological status of the organism.