Background: Volatile anesthetics inhibit vascular smooth muscle contraction, but the mechanisms responsible are uncertain. In this study, the effects of halothane on Ca2+ signaling and Ca2+ activation of contractile proteins were examined in high K +-depolarized smooth muscle from rat mesenteric resistance arteries. Methods: Vessels were cannulated and held at a constant transmurat pressure (40 mmHg). Image analysis and microfluorimetry were used to simultaneously measure vessel diameter and smooth muscle intracellular [Ca2+] concentration ([Ca2+]i). Myosin light chain (MLC) phosphorylation was measured using the Western blotting technique. Results: Step increases in extracellular [Ca2+] concentration (0-10 mM) in high K+ (40 mM)-depolarized smooth muscle produced incremental increases in [Ca 2+]i, MLC phosphorylation, and contraction. Halothane (0.5-4.5%) inhibited contraction in a concentration-dependent manner, but the decrease in [Ca2+]i was small, and there was a marked shift in the [Ca2+]i contraction relationship to the right, indicating an important Ca2+ desensitizing effect. Halothane (0.5-4.5%) did not affect MLC phosphorylation or the [Ca2+]-MLC phosphorylation relationship, but the MLC phosphorylation-contraction relationship was also shifted rightward, indicating an "MLC phosphorylation" desensitizing effect. In contrast, control relaxations produced by the Ca2+ channel blocker nifedipine were accompanied by decreases in both [Ca2+]i and MLC phosphorylation, and nifedipine had no affect on the [Ca2+]i contraction, [Ca2+]i MLC phosphorylation, and MLC phosphorylation-contraction relationships. Conclusions: In high K +-depolarized vascular smooth muscle, halothane relaxation is largely mediated by a Ca2+ and MLC phosphorylation desensitizing effect. These results suggest that the relaxing action of halothane is independent of the classic Ca2+-induced myosin phosphorylation contraction mechanism.