The pharmacological profile of a series of (+/-)-2,5-dimethoxy-4-(X)-phenylisopropylamines (X=I, Br, NO(2), CH(3), or H) and corresponding phenylethylamines, was determined in Xenopus laevis oocytes injected with cRNA coding for rat 5-HT(2A) or 5-HT(2C) receptors. The efficacy and relative potency of these drugs were determined and compared to classical 5-HT(2) receptor agonists and antagonists. The rank order of agonist potency at the 5-HT(2A) receptor was: alpha-methyl-5-HT=5-HT>m-CPP>MK-212; at the 5-HT(2C) receptor the order was: 5-HT>alpha-methyl-5-HT>MK-212>m-CPP. All these compounds were full agonists at the 5-HT(2C) receptor, but alpha-methyl-5-HT and m-CPP showed lower efficacy at the 5-HT(2A) receptor. 4-(4-Fluorobenzoyl)-1-(4-phenylbutyl)piperidine (4F 4PP) was 200 times more potent as a 5-HT(2A) antagonist than at 5-HT(2C) receptors. Conversely, RS 102221 was 100 times more potent as a 5-HT(2C) antagonist, confirming their relative receptor selectivities. The phenylisopropylamines were partial agonists at the 5-HT(2A) receptor, with I(max) relative to 5-HT in the 22+/-7 to 58+/-15% range; the corresponding phenylethylamines had lower or undetectable efficacies. All these drugs had higher efficacies at 5-HT(2C) receptors; DOI was a full 5-HT(2C) agonist. 2C-I and the other phenylethylamines examined showed relative efficacies at the 5-HT(2C) receptor ranging from 44+/-10% to 76+/-16%. 2C-N was a 5-HT(2) receptor antagonist; the mechanism was competitive at the 5-HT(2A), but non-competitive at the 5-HT(2C) receptor. The antagonism was time-dependent at the 5-HT(2C) receptor but independent of pre-incubation time at the 5-HT(2A) receptor subtype. The alpha-methyl group determines the efficacy of these phenylalkylamines at the 5-HT(2A) and 5-HT(2C) receptors.