We studied the effect of ischaemia and reperfusion on vasoconstrictor and vasodilator mechanisms. Anaesthetized rabbits were subjected to 4-h abdominal aortic occlusion and 1-h reperfusion in vivo. Segments of the abdominal (ischaemic-reperfused) and thoracic (control) aorta were then removed for in vitro studies. Ischaemia/reperfusion had no significant effect on relaxant responses to either acetylcholine (ACh:endothelium-dependent) or sodium nitroprusside (SNP:endothelium-independent). The sensitivity of the aorta to contraction by phenylephrine was significantly increased in aortic rings with or without endothelium (by 2.2- and 3.7-fold, respectively), but was not different after 4-h ischaemia without reperfusion. In contrast, responses to methoxamine, serotonin, and U46619 were not affected by ischaemia/reperfusion. Moreover, the relative increase in aortic sensitivity to phenylephrine was prevented by treatment of control and ischaemic-reperfused aortic rings with the neuronal uptake inhibitor cocaine (10(-5) M). These results suggest that after 4-h ischaemia, reperfusion damages sympathetic neuronal uptake mechanisms in rabbit aorta. As a result, phenylephrine, an agonist normally susceptible to neuronal uptake, may exert more potent contractile effects. Endothelium-dependent and endothelium-independent relaxant mechanisms in the aorta appear to be resistant to acute ischaemia and reperfusion.