Atherosclerosis is a progressive disease in which its clinical sequelae are manifest with increasing frequency as individual age. The present study seeks to better understand the mechanisms underlying this process by utilizing our previously-characterized rat model of early atherosclerosis induction to evaluate the effect of atherogenic plasma lipids on intracellular ionized calcium levels in rat platelets. Sprague-Dawley male rats were infused i.v. with 20% Lipofundin-S, a triglyceride-rich emulsion shown by us in previous studies to induce early athero-sclerosis and platelet hyperactivity. Twenty four hrs after the last infusion, blood was obtained by cardiac puncture. Washed platelets were loaded with aequorin, stimulated with ADP, and [Ca++]i was determined by measuring luminescence in platelets from lipid-infused vs. control rats. In platelets isolated from lipid-infused rats, [Ca++]i levels were 34% higher (p < or = 0.05) than in platelets from control animals. In addition, the mean, median, and mode diameters of platelets from lipid-treated rats were significantly greater (p < or = 0.001) than those of platelets from controls. With ADP as the aggregating agent, nifedipine at 1 microgram/ml caused a 27% (p < or = 0.05) inhibition of [Ca++]i release in platelets from lipid-treated rats, but showed no inhibitory action in platelets isolated from control animals. Hyperlipidemia results in elevated platelet [Ca++]i levels, with a concomitant increase in cell size, both indicating enhanced platelet function. Nifedipine modulates this increased activity in platelets isolated from lipid-infused rats, but not in cells from control animals.