The alpha 2-adrenergic agonist medetomidine produces systemic hemodynamic effects that are mediated by both peripheral and central nervous system actions. The current investigation was designed to characterize coronary and systemic hemodynamic effects of the D- and L-stereoisomers of medetomidine in conscious, chronically instrumented dogs with and without autonomic nervous system blockade. Dogs were instrumented for measurement of aortic pressure, coronary blood flow velocity, cardiac output, left ventricular pressure, rate of change in pressure (dP/dt), and subendocardial systolic shortening. Administration of the D-isomer of medetomidine (doses of 1.25, 2.5, and 5.0 micrograms/kg, each administered over 10 min, with 60 min between doses) significantly altered systemic hemodynamics, in a biphasic fashion. A decrease in respiratory rate without change in arterial blood gas tensions occurred. With the 5 micrograms/kg dose of D-medetomidine, an initial pressor response was followed by secondary, significant (P less than 0.05), and dose-related decreases in heart rate (74 +/- 3 to 57 +/- 4 beats per min), mean arterial pressure (109 +/- 2 to 100 +/- 3 mmHg) and the rate-pressure product (10.5 +/- 0.4 to 7.0 +/- 0.5 beats.min-1.mmHg.10(3] accompanied by a reduction in plasma concentrations of norepinephrine. No changes in left ventricular end diastolic pressure or coronary blood flow velocity occurred. In contrast to the D-isomer, the L-isomer (1.25, 2.5 and 5.0 micrograms/kg) produced no changes in hemodynamics or plasma concentrations of norepinephrine. In dogs pretreated with hexamethonium (20 mg/kg), propranolol (2 mg/kg), and atropine methylnitrate (3 mg/kg) to produce autonomic nervous system blockade, D-medetomidine also produced an initial pressor response, but no secondary reduction in heart rate or arterial pressure occurred. The results indicate that the D-isomer of medetomidine is stereospecific for alterations in hemodynamics: the active D-isomer produces decreases in heart rate, arterial pressure, and the rate-pressure product via diminished sympathetic and/or augmented parasympathetic tone. This conclusion is supported by the absence of these changes after pharmacologic blockade of the autonomic nervous system.