Alpha-2 adrenoceptor agonists exhibit antidiarrheal activity in animal models and in humans. However, hypotensive and sedative side effects seriously limit the use of these agents to treat diarrhea. SK&F 35886 (2,6-dimethyl phenylamino imidazoline) is an alpha-2 adrenoceptor agonist with little central nervous system activity. In Ussing chamber preparations of rabbit ileum, SK&F 35886 produces a concentration-dependent decrease in basal short-circuit current (Isc) (EC50 0.2 microM) that is dependent on the presence of mucosal HCO3. This concentration-response curve is shifted to the right of rauwolscine, increasing the EC50 to 30 microM. Prazosin had no effect on this response. Flux studies indicate that SK&F 35886 increases net Cl absorption and enhances HCO3 absorption without altering net Na flux. After PGE2 stimulation of Isc, SK&F 35886, applied either serosally or mucosally, immediately returns the Isc to base line. This effect is due to a reversal of the PGE2-induced inhibition of Na and Cl absorption. In vivo SK&F 35886 dose-dependently inhibits PGE2-induced enteropooling when given orally (ED50 approximately 31 micrograms/kg). This effect is attenuated significantly by rauwolscine (1.0 micrograms/kg s.c.). In cecectomized rats, SK&F 35886 abolishes PGE2-induced diarrhea within 1 hr after oral administration of the drug. SK&F 35886 (500 micrograms/kg p.o.) did not alter hexobarbital sleep time or elicit piloerection or lethargy, whereas clonidine (37.3 micrograms/kg p.o.) significantly enhanced hexobarbital sleep time. These results illustrate the ability of a peripheral acting alpha-2 agonist to promote absorption and inhibit secretion and diarrhea in the mammalian intestine.