Brain levels of adenosine are elevated during hypoxia. Through effects on adenosine receptors (A(1), A(2A), A(2B) and A(3)) on astrocytes, adenosine can influence functions such as glutamate uptake, reactive gliosis, swelling, as well as release of neurotrophic and neurotoxic factors having an impact on the outcome of metabolic stress. We have studied the roles of these receptors in astrocytes by evaluating their susceptibility to damage induced by oxygen deprivation or exposure to the hypoxia mimic cobalt chloride (CoCl(2)). Hypoxia caused ATP breakdown and purine release, whereas CoCl(2) (0.8 mM) mainly reduced ATP by causing cell death in human D384 astrocytoma cells. Further experiments were conducted in primary astrocytes prepared from specific adenosine receptor knock-out (KO) and wild type (WT) mice. In WT cells purine release following CoCl(2) exposure was mainly due to nucleotide release, whereas hypoxia-induced intracellular ATP breakdown followed by nucleoside efflux. N-ethylcarboxamidoadenosine (NECA), an unselective adenosine receptor agonist, protected from cell death following hypoxia. Cytotoxicity was more pronounced in A(1)R KO astrocytes and tended to be higher in WT cells in the presence of the A(1) receptor antagonist 8-cyclopentyl-1,3-dipropylxanthine (DPCPX). Genetic deletion of A(2A) receptor resulted in less prominent effects. A(3)R KO glial cells were more affected by hypoxia than WT cells. Accordingly, the A(3) receptor agonist 2-chloro-N(6)-(3-iodobenzyl)-N-methyl-5'-carbamoyladenosine (CL-IB-MECA) reduced ATP depletion caused by hypoxic conditions. It also reduced apoptosis in human astroglioma D384 cells after oxygen deprivation. In conclusion, the data point to a cytoprotective role of adenosine mediated by both A(1) and A(3) receptors in primary mouse astrocytes.