Neuropeptide Y (NPY) has been proposed as the candidate inhibitory peptide mediating interactions between sympathetic and vagal neurotransmission in several species, including man. Here, we have defined the NPY receptors involved in modulation of cardiac autonomic neurotransmission using receptor-selective agonists and antagonists in the rabbit and guinea-pig isolated right atria. In isolated atrial preparations, sympathetically-mediated tachycardia (ST; with atropine 1 microM) or vagally-mediated bradycardia (VB; with propranolol 0.1-1 microM) in response to electrical field stimulation (EFS, 1-4 pulses) were tested 0-30 min after incubation with single concentrations of vehicle, NPY (0.01-10 microM), the Y2 receptor agonist N-Acetyl-[Leu28,31]NPY(24-36) (termed N-A[L]NPY(24-36)) or the Y1 receptor agonist [Leu31,Pro34]NPY (LP). The effect of NPY on the concentration-chronotropic response curves to isoprenaline and bethanechol were also assessed. Guinea-pig atria: NPY and N-A[L]NPY(24-36) caused concentration-dependent inhibition of VB and ST to EFS. Both peptides caused maximal inhibition of VB and ST within 10 min incubation and this remained constant. LP caused a concentration-dependent, transient inhibition of ST which was antagonized by the Y1-receptor antagonist GR231118 (0.3 microM), with apparent competitive kinetics. Rabbit atria: NPY (1 or 10 microM) had no effect on VB at any time point, but both NPY and LP caused a transient (approximately 10 min) inhibition of sympathetic tachycardia. This inhibition could be prevented by 0.3 microM GR231118. N-A[L]NPY(24-36) had no effect on ST. NPY had no effect on the response to beta-adrenoceptor stimulation by isoprenaline nor muscarinic-receptor stimulation by bethanechol in either species. Thus, in the guinea-pig, NPY causes a stable inhibition of both VB and ST to EFS via Y2 receptors and transient inhibition of ST via Y1 receptors. In contrast in the rabbit, NPY has no effect on the cardiac vagus and prejunctional inhibition of ST is transient and mediated by a Y1-like receptor (rather than Y2). Therefore it would be surprising if NPY plays a functional role in modulation of cardiac neurotransmission in the rabbit.