Adenosine is an endogenous neuromodulator that suppresses excitatory neurotransmission. We postulated that adenosine-mediated mechanisms resist status epilepticus (SE) entry and limit SE severity. In the first experiment rats were given an adenosine agonist (2-chloroadenosine), an adenosine antagonist (aminophylline), or saline vehicle, prior to SE induction with pulsed-train current delivered to amygdala in successive 5-min current-on sessions. Saline-treated animals entered limbic SE, with predominantly exploratory behavior, after 6.0 +/- 0.9 current-on sessions. Aminophylline increased major convulsive activity during stimulation and resulted in entry into convulsive SE after only 2.1 +/- 0.1 sessions. 2-Chloroadenosine, in contrast, suppressed major convulsive activity during stimulation, and blocked (in 3/7) or delayed (4/7) SE entry, with successes requiring 12.8 +/- 0.9 stimulation sessions. In a second experiment, animals already in exploratory SE were administered a single injection of saline vehicle, aminophylline, or 2-chloroadenosine. Aminophylline converted exploratory SE into lethally severe convulsive SE. 2-Chloroadenosine suppressed SE behaviorally and electrographically, and protected recipients from the seizure-associated cerebral damage seen in saline-administered SE controls. These results support the hypothesis that endogenous adenosine mechanisms resist SE entry, modulate the severity of ongoing SE, and limit the anatomic spread of seizure activity.