Continuous haemodynamic responses to head-up tilt (HUT) and its reversal were studied in 21 subjects with sympathetic denervation due to primary chronic autonomic failure; 10 had pure autonomic failure (PAF; peripheral failure) and 11 had multiple system atrophy (MSA; central failure); 8 healthy subjects (controls) also were studied. Supine systolic, diastolic and mean arterial pressure (MAP) and total peripheral resistance (TPR) were highest in PAF. The MAP response to HUT and tilt reversal were different between groups. After HUT, MAP increased in controls (12+/-4 mmHg), but decreased in PAF and MSA (41+/-4 & 19+/-4 mmHg respectively); the fall in PAF was greater than in MSA. With tilt reversal, MAP returned promptly, but not entirely to pretilt levels in controls, with small (insignificant) overshoots in MSA and PAF. The TPR response to HUT and tilt reversal was different between groups. After HUT, TPR increased in controls (0.31+/-0.04 PRU), decreased in PAF (0.23+/-0.1 PRU) and was unchanged in MSA. With tilt reversal, TPR remained elevated (15 %) above baseline in the controls and rose in PAF (13 %) with no change in MSA. There were no differences in supine heart rate (HR), stroke volume (SV) or cardiac output (CO) between the three groups; HR, SV or CO responses to HUT or tilt reversal also did not differ between the groups. Thus, after HUT, MAP decreased, with greater hypotension induced in PAF than MSA. Since CO did not differ between groups, the decrease in TPR appears to account for the greater fall in BP in PAF than in MSA. The elevated TPR at rest pre-tilt and after tilt reversal probably contributed to supine hypertension in PAF. These haemodynamic observations may aid therapeutic strategies to reduce orthostatic hypotension and prevent supine hypertension.