Quantitative autoradiography was used to investigate the effects of Mg2+ on agonist and antagonist binding to A1 receptors in rat striatum. A1 receptors were labelled with the selective agonist N6-[3H]cyclohexyladenosine ([3H]CHA) or the selective antagonist 1,3-[3H]dipropyl-8-cyclopentylxanthine ([3H]DPCPX). Mg2+ had no significant effect on equilibrium binding constants for [3H]CHA [control: KD (95% confidence interval) of 0.34 (0.15-0.80) nM and Bmax of 267 +/- 8 fmol/mg of gray matter; with 10 mM Mg2+: KD of 0.8 (0.13-4.9) nM and Bmax of 313 +/- 8.9 fmol/mg of gray matter] or [3H]DPCPX [control: KD of 0.54 (0.30-0.99) nM and Bmax of 256 +/- 2.3 fmol/mg of gray matter; with 10 mM Mg2+: KD of 1.54 (0.2-11.0) nM and Bmax of 269 +/- 35.7 fmol/mg of gray matter]. In contrast, Mg2+ slowed the apparent association rate for both ligands; this was observed as a shift from a one-component to a two-component model for [3H]DPCPX. Mg2+ also affected the dissociation rates of both ligands; for [3H]CHA, dissociation in the presence of Mg2+ was not detected. Mg2+ produced a concentration-dependent inhibition of [3H]CHA binding only prior to equilibrium. HPLC was performed on untreated sections, sections preincubated with adenosine deaminase (ADA), and sections preincubated with ADA and incubated with ADA in the absence or presence of Mg2+. Adenosine was found in measurable quantities under all conditions, and the concentration was not influenced by Mg2+ or by the inclusion of GTP in the preincubation medium. From these data, we conclude the following: (a) adenosine is present and may be produced continuously in brain sections; (b) ADA is not capable of completely eliminating the produced adenosine; (c) Mg2+ apparently does not influence adenosine production or elimination; (d) A1 receptor-guanine nucleotide binding protein coupling is maximal in this preparation; and (e) Mg2+ decreases the dissociation rate of bound endogenous adenosine from A1 receptors, thus limiting the access of [3H]CHA and [3H]DPCPX to the receptors. Thus, enhancement of endogenous adenosine binding to A1 receptors by Mg2+ is a complicating factor in receptor autoradiography and may be so in other preparations as well.