Epibatidine, a newly discovered alkaloid from the skin of Dendrobatidae frogs, has structural similarities to nicotine. We examined the effects of epibatidine on cardiorespiratory function and ganglionic synaptic transmission. Superior cervical or splanchnic sympathetic nerve discharge (sSND) and phrenic nerve discharge (PND) were recorded along with arterial pressure (AP) in urethane-anesthetized, paralyzed and artificially ventilated rats. Epibatidine administered i.v. at low doses (0.5-2 micrograms/kg) produced a transient increase in AP and sSND, followed by a decrease and return to baseline; this low dose of epibatidine also produced a dose-dependent increase in PND. At high doses (cumulative dose of 8-16 micrograms/kg), epibatidine produced bradycardia, a profound depression in sSND and a transient elimination of PND. After i.v. administration of the ganglionic blocker chlorisondamine (5 mg/kg), AP was still increased by 1 microgram/kg epibatidine (+39 +/- 11 mm Hg). This pressor effect was not altered by pretreatment with the alpha-1 adrenergic antagonist phentolamine (+40 +/- 10 mm Hg); however, it was blocked by additional pretreatment with the vasopressin antagonist [beta-mercapto-beta,beta-cyclopentamethylenepropiony1, O-ET-Tyr2,Val4,Arg8]vasopressin (50 micrograms/kg i.v.; +2 +/- 0.4 mm Hg). Low doses of epibatidine (0.5-2 micrograms/kg) produced firing of postganglionic neurons in a decentralized ganglion preparation and potentiated synaptic transmission; at high doses (cumulative dose of 8-16 micrograms/kg), the alkaloid blocked ganglionic synaptic transmission. These results suggest that epibatidine is a potent agonist of ganglionic nicotinic receptors and that the alkaloid elicits cardiorespiratory effects similar to those of nicotine.