Pretreatment of lymphocytes (16 hr, 37 degrees C) with adrenaline at final concentrations of 10(-7) to 10(-9) M, followed by removal of the drug, increased natural killer (NK) cell activity vs K562 leukemic cells in a 4-hr 51Cr-release assay. The most efficient concentration of adrenaline was 10(-8) M; mean increase of NK activity over base-line activity for all donors examined was 30%. However, the individual response to adrenaline pretreatment was variable; in some donors, the effect was equal to maximal interferon (IFN) stimulation. Effects of adrenaline pretreatment were consistently reduced to base-line activity by co-incubation with the nonselective beta-adrenoceptor antagonist propranolol at 100-fold higher concentrations. The enhancing effect of adrenaline (10(-8) M) pretreatment was also observed after 1-hr pretreatment; this effect was prevented by simultaneous incubation with propranolol but was not affected by dex-propranolol. Direct addition of adrenaline to lymphocyte/target cell mixtures was inhibitory at 10(-6) M adrenaline concentration. The inhibitory effect of adrenaline in this assay was again completely prevented by propranolol and unaffected by dex-propranolol. The observed stimulatory effect of adrenaline pretreatment could not be ascribed to IFN production. Data presented indicate a dual effect of adrenaline on NK cell activity and suggest both a positive and a negative beta-adrenoceptor-mediated regulation of human NK cells.