The effects of norepinephrine (NE) and related agents on long-lasting changes in synaptic efficacy induced by several patterns of afferent stimuli were investigated in the CA1 region of rat hippocampal slices. NE (10 microM) showed little effect on the induction of long-term potentiation (LTP) triggered by theta-burst-patterned stimulation, whereas it inhibited the induction of long-term depression (LTD) triggered by 900 pulses of 1-Hz stimulation. In nontreated slices, 900 pulses of stimuli induced LTD when applied at lower frequencies (1-3 Hz), and induced LTP when applied at a higher frequency (30 Hz). NE (10 microM) caused a shift of the frequency-response relationship in the direction preferring potentiation. The effect of NE was most prominent at a stimulus frequency of 10 Hz, which induced no changes in control slices but clearly induced LTP in the presence of NE. The facilitating effect of NE on the induction of LTP by 10-Hz stimulation was blocked by the beta-adrenergic receptor antagonist timolol (50 microM), but not by the alpha receptor antagonist phentolamine (50 microM), and was mimicked by the beta-agonist isoproterenol (0.3 microM), but not by the alpha1 agonist phenylephrine (10 microM). The induction of LTD by 1-Hz stimulation was prevented by isoproterenol but not by phenylephrine, indicating that the activation of beta-receptors is responsible for these effects of NE. NE (10 microM) also prevented the reversal of LTP (depotentiation) by 900 pulses of 1-Hz stimulation delivered 30 min after LTP induction. In contrast to effects on naive (nonpotentiated) synapses, the effect of NE on previously potentiated synapses was only partially mimicked by isoproterenol, but fully mimicked by coapplication of phenylephrine and isoproterenol. In addition, the effect of NE was attenuated either by phentolamine or by timolol, indicating that activation of both alpha1 and beta-receptors is required. These results show that NE plays a modulatory role in the induction of hippocampal synaptic plasticity. Although beta-receptor activation is essential, alpha1 receptor activation is also necessary in determining effects on previously potentiated synapses.