Cardiac responses to catecholamines are known to be attenuated in chronic liver disease. To elucidate the role of beta-adrenergic receptor alteration in this phenomenon, we measured heart rate responsiveness to isoprenaline and myocardial beta-adrenergic receptor-binding characteristics in three groups of rats: those that were sham operated, those that had portal vein stenosis and those that were cirrhotic because of bile duct ligation. Responsiveness to isoprenaline was evaluated in conscious rats by the dose of isoprenaline needed to increase basal heart rate by 50 beats/min and by the maximal heart rate response. beta-Receptor characteristics in heart membranes were derived from 125I-iodocyanopindolol binding data. Compared with sham-operated controls, cirrhotic rats needed a significantly higher dose of isoprenaline to raise basal heart rate by 50 beats/min (102.3 +/- 19.1 vs. 28.3 +/- 11.3 ng/kg) and lower maximal heart rate response (104 +/- 29 vs. 158 +/- 61 beats/min). In addition, myocardial beta-receptor density was significantly lower in cirrhotic rats (26.5 +/- 4.6 vs. 37.5 +/- 10.3 fmol/mg protein) and the dissociation constant was higher (31.6 +/- 17.0 vs. 14.0 +/- 2.5 pmol/L). Analysis of beta 1/beta 2 subpopulations revealed that the decreased total beta-receptor density was entirely due to selective beta 1-receptor down-regulation. beta-Receptor affinity for agonist was not altered in cirrhotic rats. Rats with portal vein stenosis showed no significant differences in either isoprenaline responsiveness or beta-receptor characteristics when compared with controls. These results indicate that beta-adrenergic receptor down-regulation may be responsible for the myocardial hyporesponsiveness to catecholamines observed in cirrhosis.