We have studied cerebral vascular effects of forskolin, a drug which stimulates adenylate cyclase and potentiates dilator effects of adenosine in other vascular beds. Our goals were to determine whether forskolin is a cerebral vasodilator and whether it potentiates cerebral vasodilator responses to adenosine. We measured cerebral blood flow with microspheres in anesthetized rabbits. Forskolin (10 micrograms/kg per min) increased blood flow (ml/min per 100 gm) from 39 +/- 5 (mean +/- S.E.) to 56 +/- 9 (p less than 0.05) in cerebrum, and increased flow to myocardium and kidney despite a decrease in mean arterial pressure. Forskolin did not alter cerebral oxygen consumption, which indicates that the increase in cerebral blood flow is a direct vasodilator effect and is not secondary to increased metabolism. We also examined effects of forskolin on the response to infusion of adenosine. Cerebral blood flow was measured during infusion of 1-5 microM/min adenosine into one internal carotid artery, under control conditions and during infusion of forskolin at 3 micrograms/kg per min i.v. Adenosine alone increased ipsilateral cerebral blood flow from 32 +/- 3 to 45 +/- 5 (p less than 0.05). Responses to adenosine were not augmented during infusion of forskolin. We conclude that forskolin is a direct cerebral vasodilator and forskolin does not potentiate cerebral vasodilator responses to adenosine.