The purpose of this study was to determine if the cardioprotective effect of adenosine on the ischemic myocardium is mediated by interaction with specific adenosine receptor subtypes. Isolated rat hearts perfused at constant flow were subjected to global normothermic (37 degrees C) ischemia and the time to onset of ischemic contracture (TOIC) was used as a marker of myocardial ischemic injury. Hearts treated with adenosine and R-phenylisopropyladenosine (PIA), an adenosine A1 receptor agonist, exhibited a significantly greater TOIC than control hearts (18.60 +/- 0.40 and 16.64 +/- 1.15 min, respectively vs 9.12 +/- 0.66 min), whereas phenylaminoadenosine, an adenosine A2 receptor agonist, had no effect on TOIC (11.73 +/- 0.87 min). BW A1433U, an adenosine receptor antagonist, blocked the effects of adenosine and PIA on ischemic contracture time, and BW A1433U did not alter the ability of nifedipine or propranolol to delay the onset of ischemic contracture, thus indicating the specificity of this compound for the adenosine receptor. PIA-treated hearts exhibited significantly greater ATP levels throughout the ischemic period compared to control hearts, whereas hearts treated with BW A1433U showed a rapid decline in ATP content. These results suggest that the beneficial effects of adenosine on the ischemic myocardium are mediated by interaction with adenosine A1 receptors, and that endogenously formed adenosine plays a role in attenuating myocardial ischemic damage.