The influence of the activation of presynaptic adenosine receptors on nicotinic autofacilitation of electrically evoked [3H]acetylcholine release from rat phrenic motor nerve terminals was investigated. Blocking the adenosine A2A receptor with 3,7-dimethyl-1-propargylxanthine (DMPX, 10 microM) greatly potentiated, whereas the adenosine A1 receptor antagonist, 1,3-dipropyl-8-cyclopentylxanthine (DPCPX, 2.5 nM), partially prevented the facilitatory effect of the nicotinic receptor agonist, 1,1-dimethyl-4-phenylpiperazinium (DMPP, 1 microM, 3 min), on evoked [3H]acetylcholine release. The adenosine A2A receptor agonist, 2-[p-(2-carboxyethyl)phenethylamino]-5'-N-ethylcarboxamideadeno sine (CGS 21680C, 3 nM), but not the adenosine A1 receptor agonist, R-N6-phenylisopropyl adenosine (R-PIA, 300 nM), partially blocked the DMPP (1 microM) facilitation. Forskolin (3 microM) mimicked the attenuation caused by CGS 21680C; inhibition of adenylate cyclase with N-(as-2-phenylcyclopentyl)azacyclo-tridecan-2-imine hydrochloride (MDL 12,330A, 10 microM) markedly enhanced the facilitatory effect of DMPP (1 microM). Prolonged exposure to a high concentration of DMPP (10 microM, 15 min) decreased evoked tritium outflow. The decrease in evoked [3H]acetylcholine release following prolonged exposure to DMPP was augmented by pretreatment with CGS 21680C (3 nM) and forskolin (3 microM), and was abolished by inactivating endogenous adenosine with adenosine deaminase (0.5 U/ml). It is concluded that tonic adenosine A2A receptor activation regulates nicotinic acetylcholine autofacilitation. This action is likely to be mediated through an adenylate cyclase/cyclic AMP-dependent mechanism.