5-Aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide riboside (AICA riboside; Acadesine) activates AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) in intact cells, and is reported to exert protective effects in the mammalian CNS. In rat cerebrocortical brain slices, AMPK was activated by metabolic stress (ischaemia > hypoxia > aglycaemia) and AICA riboside (0.1-10 mm). Activation of AMPK by AICA riboside was greatly attenuated by inhibitors of equilibrative nucleoside transport. AICA riboside also depressed excitatory synaptic transmission in area CA1 of the rat hippocampus, which was prevented by an adenosine A1 receptor antagonist and reversed by application of adenosine deaminase. However, AICA riboside was neither a substrate for adenosine deaminase nor an agonist at adenosine receptors. We conclude that metabolic stress and AICA riboside both stimulate AMPK activity in mammalian brain, but that AICA riboside has an additional effect, i.e. competition with adenosine for uptake by the nucleoside transporter. This results in an increase in extracellular adenosine and subsequent activation of adenosine receptors. Neuroprotection by AICA riboside could be mediated by this mechanism as well as, or instead of, by AMPK activation. Caution should therefore be exercised in ascribing an effect of AICA riboside to AMPK activation, especially in systems where inhibition of adenosine re-uptake has physiological consequences.