Thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) possesses significant arousing and cardio-respiratory stimulant actions. The effects of a 2 mg/kg i.v. bolus dose of TRH on respiration and systemic hemodynamics were compared in conscious, freely-moving rats and during anesthesia with 4 different anesthetics. Fifty-four male Sprague-Dawley rats weighing 285 +/- 4 g (mean +/- S.E.M.) were divided into 5 groups: conscious, enflurane (2%), isoflurane (1.4%), pentobarbital (8 mg/kg/h i.v.), and ketamine (60 mg/kg/h i.v.). Anesthetized rats were intubated and breathed oxygen or anesthetic/oxygen spontaneously. Aortic blood pressure, heart rate, cardiac output, respiratory rate, arterial blood pH, blood gases, lactate and glucose were measured, and data were collected over a 20 min baseline period and for 130 min post-TRH. TRH increased respiratory rate in all groups; concomitant changes in arterial PCO2 indicated increased minute ventilation in the inhalation agent groups but not in the i.v. anesthetic groups or in the awake group. Significant respiratory depression in the enflurane group was rapidly reversed by TRH. The respiratory stimulant and arousing effects of TRH were smallest with ketamine anesthesia. The hemodynamic responses to TRH were consistent with a pattern of sympathoadrenalmedullary activation and were relatively uniform across groups despite anesthetic-induced alterations in baseline values. TRH or its analogues may prove useful as an analeptic in clinical anesthesia.