1. The effects of adenosine A1 receptor stimulation on basal and histamine-stimulated levels of intracellular free calcium ion concentration ([Ca2+]i) have been investigated in primary astrocyte cultures derived from neonatal rat forebrains. 2. Histamine (0.1 microM-1 mM) caused rapid, concentration-dependent increases in [Ca2+]i over basal levels in single type-2 astrocytes in the presence of extracellular calcium. A maximum mean increase of 1,468 +/- 94 nM over basal levels was recorded in 90% of type-2 cells treated with 1 mM histamine (n = 49). The percentage of type-2 cells exhibiting calcium increases in response to histamine appeared to vary in a concentration-dependent manner. However, the application of 1 mM histamine to type-1 astrocytes had less effect, eliciting a mean increase in [Ca2+]i of 805 +/- 197 nM over basal levels in only 30% of the cells observed (n = 24). 3. In the presence of extracellular calcium, the A1 receptor-selective agonist, N6-cyclopentyladenosine (CPA, 10 microM), caused a maximum mean increase in [Ca2+]i of 1,110 +/- 181 nM over basal levels in 30% of type-2 astrocytes observed (n = 53). The size of this response was concentration-dependent; however, the percentage of type-2 cells exhibiting calcium increases in response to CPA did not appear to vary in a concentration-dependent manner. A mean calcium increase of 605 +/- 89 nM over basal levels was also recorded in 23% of type-1 astrocytes treated with 10 microM CPA (n = 30). 4. In the absence of extracellular calcium, in medium containing 0.1 mM EGTA, a mean increase in [Ca2+]i of 504 +/- 67 nM over basal levels was recorded in 41% of type-2 astrocytes observed (n = 41) after stimulation with 1 microM CPA. However, in the presence of extracellular calcium, pretreatment with the A1 receptor-selective antagonist, 8-cyclopentyl-1,3-dipropylxanthine, for 5-10 min before stimulation with 1 microM CPA, completely antagonized the response in 100% of the cells observed. 5. In type-2 astrocytes, prestimulation with 10 nM CPA significantly increased the size of the calcium response produced by 0.1 microM histamine and the percentage of responding cells. Treatment with 0.1 microM histamine alone caused a mean calcium increase of 268 +/- 34 nM in 41% of the cells observed (n = 34). After treatment with 10 nM CPA, mean calcium increase of 543 +/- 97 nM was recorded in 100% of the cells observed (n = 33). 6. These data indicate that adenosine Al receptors couple to intracellular calcium mobilization and extracellular calcium influx in type-1 and type-2 astrocytes in primary culture. In addition, the simultaneous activation of adenosine Al receptors on type-2 astrocytes results in an augmentation of the calcium response to histamine H1 receptor stimulation.