1. Adenine dinucleotides (Ap3A, x = 2-6) are naturally-occurring polyphosphated nucleotidic substances which are found in the CNS and are known to be released in a calcium-dependent manner from storage vesicles in brain synaptosomes. The selectivity and activity of adenine dinucleotides for neuronally-derived recombinant P2 purinoceptors were studied using P2X2 and P2Y1 subtypes expressed in Xenopus oocytes. 2. For the P2Y1 subtype derived from chick brain, Ap3A was equipotent and as active as ATP (EC50 values: 375 +/- 86 nM and 334 +/- 25 nM, respectively). Ap4A was a weak partial agonist and other dinucleotides were inactive as agonists. None of the inactive dinucleotides were antagonists nor modulated the activity of Ap3A and ATP. 3. For the P2X2 subtype derived from rat PC12 cells, Ap4A was as active as ATP but less potent (EC50 values: 15.2 +/- 1 microM and 3.7 +/- 0.7 microM, respectively). Other adenosine dinucleotides were inactive as either agonists or antagonists. 4. Ap5A (1-100 nM) potentiated ATP-responses at the P2X2 subtype, showing an EC50 of 2.95 +/- 0.7 nM for this modulatory effect. Ap5A (10 nM) shifted the concentration-response curves for ATP to the left by one-half log10 unit but did not alter the Hill co-efficient for ATP (nH = 2.1 +/- 0.1). Ap5A (10 nM) failed to potentiate Ap4A-responses but did enhance the efficacy of the P2 purinoceptor antagonist, suramin, by 12 fold at the P2X2 subtype. 5. In conclusion, the results show that ionotropic (P2X2) and metabotropic (P2Y1) ATP receptors which occur in the CNS are activated selectively by naturally-occurring adenine dinucleotides which are known to be released with nucleotides from storage vesicles. The observed potentiation of P2X2-responses by Ap5A, where co-released with ATP by brain synaptosomes, may have a functional bearing in purinergic signalling in the CNS.