Very low doses (0.00001 mg/kg) of the alpha-2 adrenergic antagonist, yohimbine, improved working memory performance in a subset of aged monkeys. Improvement appeared to result from increased norepinephrine (NE) release onto postsynaptic alpha-2 adrenoceptors, as the response was blocked by the "postsynaptic" alpha-2 antagonist, SKF104078. Cognitive-enhancing effects of low dose yohimbine treatment may depend on aged animals retaining an intact, endogenous NE system. In contrast to yohimbine, the alpha-2 agonist, clonidine, has improved working memory in all aged animals examined. In the present study, clonidine's beneficial effects were also blocked by the postsynaptic antagonists SKF104078 and SKF104856, suggesting that clonidine acts by directly stimulating postsynaptic alpha-2 adrenoceptors. Beneficial doses of clonidine (0.01 mg/kg) and yohimbine (0.00001 mg/kg) were combined to see if they would produce additive effects on memory enhancement. This strategy was successful in young monkeys with intact NE systems but was not effective in the aged monkeys. These findings demonstrate that drugs that indirectly stimulate postsynaptic alpha-2 receptors by increasing NE release are not as reliable in aged monkeys as directly acting agonists that can replace NE at postsynaptic alpha-2 receptors.