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To investigate the regulation of sympathetic-adrenal medullary function in spontaneously hypertensive (SHR) male rats, we measured urinary catecholamine excretion for 4 h at room temperature and also during cold exposure (4°C) in groups of four and 12-week-old stroke-prone SHR (SHRSP), stroke-resistent SHR (SHRSR) and normotensive Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) rats. The effect of cold exposure on 12-week-old adrenal denervated rats was also examined. At room temperature, urinary excretion of epinephrine, but not norepinephrine or dopamine, was increased significantly in four-week-old SHRSP and SHRSR rats compared with age-matched WKY. The enhanced excretion of epinephrine at room temperature was not observed in hypertensive rats at 12 weeks of age. During cold exposure, urinary concentrations of each catecholamine increased markedly in rats of all three strains. In addition, the epinephrine response was significantly enhanced in SHRSP rats and the norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine responses were significantly enhanced in SHRSR rats. Following adrenal denervation, the urinary epinephrine response to cold exposure was abolished in all strains. These results reveal an enhancement of sympathetic and neurally-mediated adrenal medullary responses in prehypertensive SHR rats and a greater urinary epinephrine response to cold exposure in four and 12-week-old SHR rats. This alteration in catecholamine secretion may be important in the development and maintenance of this type of experimental hypertension.