Previous studies suggest that a link exists between increased oxidative stress and diabetic neuropathy. Moreover, antioxidants may protect neurones from the degenerative effects of reactive oxygen species. In our study, we used streptozotocin (STZ)-diabetic rats in a 8-month chronic diabetes model to study the effects of in vivo treatment with stobadine (ST), a pyridoindole antioxidant, and vitamin E. STZ-diabetic rats were treated with ST (24.7 mg/kg/day), vitamin E (D,L-alpha-tocopheryl acetate, 400-500 IU/kg/day) or ST plus vitamin E through an intra-oral catheter for a 8-month period beginning 10 days after STZ injection. Blood glucose and HbA1c levels were increased in diabetic rats by about 400 and 100%, respectively. Antioxidant treatment significantly decreased haemoglobin glycosylation (P < 0.05). We also determined the effects of chronic diabetes on sympathetic neurotransmission by measuring the contractility of isolated vas deferens. Furthermore, we investigated contractions elicited by electrical field stimulation (EFS) (1-64 Hz) which were significantly decreased in diabetic rats when compared with control rats. Treatment with ST or vitamin E alone partly enhanced the amplitude of the contractions induced by EFS, but a combination of ST and vitamin E treatment showed no additional effects. Contractile response of the vas deferens to exogenous noradrenaline, was increased in diabetic rats when compared with control rats. While the addition of vitamin E alone had no effect, ST completely returned noradrenaline-induced contractions to basal levels. The tension induced by 120 mm KCl was not statistically different among the experimental groups. In normal rats, EFS-induced contractions were significantly inhibited by pyrogallol (10(-4) m), a free-radical generator. Percentage inhibition of pyrogallol on EFS (32 Hz)-induced contractions in ring sections was 48 +/- 5.8 in control, 75 +/- 5.5 in untreated-diabetic, 54 +/- 2.7 in ST-treated diabetic, and 58 +/- 4.7 in vitamin E-treated diabetic rats. Combining both ST and vitamin E treatment had the same effects as each antioxidant alone with a percent inhibition of 48 +/- 6.8. These results are consistent with the degenerative changes seen in sympathetic nerves and the abnormal function observed in chronically diabetic rats, leading to a decrease in EFS response and an increase in response to adrenergic agonists in the vas deferens. Furthermore, we demonstrated that reactive oxygen species are responsible for impaired sympathetic neurotransmission and abnormal function of diabetic vas deferens, and that a combination of antioxidants may be better for the therapy of reproductive system disabilities in male diabetics.