The purpose of this study was to investigate the precise mechanism by which central alpha 2-adrenergic pathways modulate GH secretion in humans. In 10 normal subjects we compared the pattern of clonidine-induced GH release to that elicited by GH-releasing hormone (GHRH) given at a time of presumably similar responsiveness of the somatotrope. We also evaluated the effect of stimulation by GHRH (either endogenous, by administration of clonidine, or exogenous) on the GH response to a further exogenous GHRH stimulation. In 2 experiments the administration of clonidine (0.150 mg, orally) at 0 or 60 min was followed by a GHRH [GRF-(1-29); 1 micrograms/kg, iv] challenge at 180 min. In other experiments subjects received on separate occasions placebo or clonidine at 0 min, followed by GHRH at 60 min and again at 180 min. In a further experiment the administration of clonidine at 0 min was followed by 2 GHRH challenges (60 and 180 min later). The administration of clonidine 60 or 120 min, but not 180 min, before the GHRH bolus significantly (P less than 0.01) increased the GH responses to this challenge compared to those elicited by GHRH when given after placebo in a period of a similar somatotrope responsiveness. These, in turn, were significantly (P less than 0.05) higher than those elicited by clonidine alone. The close relationship between pre-GHRH plasma GH values and GHRH-elicited GH peaks, not observed for clonidine, was lost after pretreatment with this drug. These data indicate that clonidine was able to disrupt the intrinsic hypothalamic-somatotroph rhythm, suggesting that alpha 2-adrenergic pathways have a major inhibitory effect on somatostatin release. Our data also indicate that GH responses to a GHRH bolus administered 120 min after a prior GHRH challenge are dependent on two parameters: the intrinsic hypothalamic-somatotroph rhythm at the time of the second GHRH bolus, and the magnitude of GH secretion elicited by the previous somatotroph stimulation. In summary, alpha 2-adrenergic agonism appears to act primarily in GH control by inhibiting the hypothalamic release of somatostatin, rather than by stimulating GHRH secretion.