The usefulness of the plasma concentrations of two major metabolites of norepinephrine (NE), 3,4-dihydroxyphenylglycol (DHPG) and 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol (MHPG), as indicators of neuronal NE release was investigated. The potent alpha 2-adrenoceptor agonist, dexmedetomidine, induced only about 15% maximal reductions in the metabolite concentrations, in spite of almost total inhibition of neuronal NE release, as evidenced by 90% reductions in plasma NE concentrations. Similarly, administration of the alpha 2-adrenoceptor antagonist atipamezole was followed by only small increases in plasma DHPG and no change in MHPG levels, in spite of almost six-fold, albeit short-lasting, increases in plasma NE. In contrast, a single dose of the reversible monoamine oxidase type A (MAO-A) inhibitor moclobemide reduced plasma DHPG levels by 78% and MHPG levels by 51%. It is concluded that the plasma concentrations of DHPG and MHPG are largely determined by intraneuronal, MAO-A-dependent metabolism of NE, and do not accurately reflect acute alterations in neuronal NE release. The concentration of NE in venous plasma is clearly a more sensitive indicator of alpha 2-adrenoceptor-mediated regulation of NE release.