1. Hormones involved in cardiovascular regulation are influenced by drug treatment. It is therefore difficult to study endocrine mechanisms in heart failure as most patients are already on treatment by the time they reach hospital. 2. We studied nine hospital in-patients before and after treatment of acute New York Heart Association class IV heart failure. 3. Before treatment, plasma brain and atrial natriuretic peptides were markedly elevated (BNP 121 +/- 26 pg/ml, ANP 163 +/- 33 pg/ml; normal range: BNP 3.9 +/- 0.3 pg/ml, ANP 8.6 +/- 0.8 pg/ml) and correlated positively with serum creatinine and left ventricular end-diastolic diameter and negatively with ejection fraction. Eight patients improved and one died. 4. With improvement plasma ANP and BNP fell. Initial renin activity was within the normal range but increased on treatment. Plasma neuropeptide Y and adrenaline remained normal before and after treatment in the eight patients who improved. Initial plasma noradrenaline was in the normal range in four of these patients and just above normal in a further four. In the patient who died, initial plasma neuropeptide Y and catecholamines were very high. 5. Plasma BNP emerged as complementary to ANP as a dynamic index in severe heart failure; however, renal function is also an important determinant of plasma BNP and ANP. There is little evidence for activation of the circulating renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system or neuropeptide Y before treatment of acute heart failure.