The time course of adenosine release in the nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS) and ventrolateral medulla (VLM) during acute systemic hypoxia was investigated in the anaesthetised rat by means of amperometric enzymatic sensors. It was found that acute hypoxia induced a significant delayed increase in adenosine level (reaching levels as high as 5 mum) in the NTS and that hypoxia-induced release of adenosine was similar at various regions of the NTS along its rostro-caudal axis. Significantly smaller or no increases in adenosine levels at all in response to hypoxia were observed in the VLM. The increase in adenosine level in the NTS occurred during reoxygenation after the termination of the hypoxic challenge and was accompanied by a smaller increase in inosine concentration. At the dorsal surface of the brainstem, only release of inosine was detected following acute hypoxia. Addition of the ecto-5'-nucleotidase inhibitor alpha,beta-methylene ADP (200 muM) to the dorsal surface of the brainstem completely abolished the signal evoked by hypoxia, suggesting that the inosine arose from adenosine that was produced in the extracellular space by the prior release of ATP. This study indicates that following systemic hypoxia, adenosine levels in the NTS increase to a significantly greater extent than in the VLM. However, the increase in adenosine concentration in the NTS occurs too late to be responsible for the hypoxia-induced depression of the respiratory activity.