To assess the relationship between renal plasma flow (ERPF) or glomerular filtration rate (GFR) and the levels of norepinephrine (NE) or epinephrine (E) in plasma or urine in the presence of progressive degrees of non-oliguric renal functional impairment, these variables were assessed simultaneously in 18 normal subjects, 72 with parenchymal kidney disease and 14 with essential hypertension. ERPF and GFR were lower (P less than 0.01 to 0.001) in the groups with renal disease (mean +/- SD, 340 +/- 230 and 68 +/- 43 ml/min/1.73 m2, respectively) or essential hypertension (434 +/- 101 and 97 +/- 25 ml/min/1.73 m2) than normal subjects (597 +/- 133 and 118 +/- 14 ml/min/1.73 m2). Plasma and urinary NE and E did not differ significantly among groups and were unrelated with ERPF or GFR (range 4 to 160 ml/min/1.73 m2), except for reduced (P less than 0.001) urinary NE and E excretion in the presence of a GFR less than 20 ml/min. Subgroups with renal disease and a normal (N = 39) or high blood pressure (N = 33) also were comparable in their plasma and urinary NE and E, while ERPF and GFR tended to be lower in hypertensive patients. It is concluded that a chronic reduction in excretory kidney function may have no relevant impact on circulating levels of NE and E per se, although their urinary excretion falls distinctly at the stage of advanced renal failure. These aspects deserve consideration when pathogenetic or diagnostic studies of catecholamines are performed in normotensive or hypertensive patients with impaired kidney function.