The purpose of this study is to determine whether or not the sympathetic nervous system provides a tonic inhibitory input to the colon in chloralose-anesthetized cats. Proximal and midcolonic motility were monitored using extraluminal force transducers. An intravenous bolus injection of 5 mg of phentolamine in 14 animals elicited a pronounced increase in proximal colon contractility. The minute motility index changed from 0 +/- 0 to 26 +/- 4 after phentolamine administration. Midcolonic motility also increased in response to phentolamine. Specific blockade of alpha 2-receptors, but not alpha 1-receptors, caused the same response seen with phentolamine. alpha-Adrenergic blockade increased colon contractility after spinal cord transection but not after ganglionic blockade. Blockade of alpha-adrenergic receptors was also performed before vagal and pelvic nerve stimulation and in both cases increased colonic motility. Vagal stimulation alone had no effect on colonic contractility, while pelvic nerve stimulation increased motility at the midcolon. alpha-Receptor blockade did not alter the ineffectiveness of vagal stimulation but did unmask excitatory effects of pelvic nerve stimulation on the proximal colon. All excitatory colonic responses were prevented by blocking muscarinic cholinergic receptors. These data indicate that tonic sympathetic nervous system activity exerts an inhibitory effect on colonic motility. The inhibitory effect is mediated through alpha 2-adrenergic receptors. Based on these findings, we suggest that alterations in sympathetic nervous system activity may be extremely important for the regulation of circular muscle contractions in the colon.