1. This review focuses on the extracellular actions of ATP and adenosine, and in particular their role in cardiovascular regulation. 2. ATP serves as a co-transmitter within the sympathetic nervous system, and is also released from endothelium and aggregating thrombocytes. ATP acts on P2x purinoceptors on vascular smooth muscle cells to induce vasoconstriction. Stimulation of P2y purinoceptors on endothelial cells releases endothelium-derived relaxing factors and causes vasodilatation. This dual action of ATP may have pathophysiological importance by inducing vasospasm at sites of impaired endothelial function and thrombus formation. 3. Adenosine is generated by enzymic degradation of ATP. Its formation is enhanced during ischaemia. Adenosine inhibits noradrenaline release from sympathetic nerve endings, causes vasodilatation via endothelium-dependent and endothelium-independent actions, has important anti-arrhythmic properties and prevents deleterious sequelae of ischaemia. In humans, adenosine evokes a sympatho-excitatory reflex mediated by chemically sensitive receptors and afferent nerves in the kidney, heart and forearm. This reflex may be active during exercise and ischaemia and, because of its potential adverse consequences, it should be considered when developing new therapies to potentiate the anti-ischaemic actions of endogenous adenosine in humans. Adenosine appears to mediate ischaemia-induced pain; a reduced sensitivity to adenosine may underlie silent ischaemia. 4. New drugs that interact with adenosine formation or degradation or with adenosine receptors are under development. These have potential therapeutic application in the treatment of ischaemia and other circulatory disorders.