The pharmacokinetics of imipramine and desipramine have been extensively investigated with recent studies designed to understand sources of intersubject variability and to study discrete clinical populations rather than healthy volunteers. Sources of intersubject variability in pharmacokinetics are both genetic (oxidative phenotype) and environmental. Oxidative phenotype has an important impact on first-pass metabolism. In individuals with poor metabolism, systemic availability for imipramine is increased. Intrinsic clearance of desipramine is reduced 4-fold in individuals with poor metabolism. Recent pharmacokinetic studies in diverse patient populations such as the depressed elderly, children and alcoholics have revealed decreased clearance of imipramine in the elderly and increased clearance of both imipramine and desipramine in chronic alcoholics. In at least a third of the population, nonlinear pharmacokinetics of desipramine may be observed at steady-state plasma concentrations above 150 micrograms/L. These nonlinear changes in desipramine pharmacokinetics are not associated with age or sex, but are associated with higher desipramine 2-hydroxydesipramine concentration ratios. Hydroxylated metabolites of imipramine and desipramine may possess both antidepressants and cardiotoxic activity but their formation is rate limited and plasma concentrations tend to follow the parent compound with little accumulation. The potent cardiovascular effects of the hydroxymetabolites may be particularly relevant for the elderly and in acute overdose.