The effects of 3 phosphodiesterase inhibitors, aminophylline, isobutylmethylxanthine (IBMX), and RO 20-1724, were tested on descending intraspinal and spinal reflex transmission to sympathetic preganglionic neurons in unanesthetized spinal cats. Sympathetic discharges, recorded from upper thoracic preganglionic white rami, were evoked by stimulation (0.1 Hz) of descending excitatory pathways in the cervical dorsolateral funiculus (intraspinal) or of adjacent intercostal nerves (spinal reflex). Each phosphodiesterase rapidly and markedly enhanced transmission through intraspinal pathways but only slowly and modestly enhanced transmission through spinal reflex pathways. Pretreatment with a methyltyrosine-reserpine combination, chlorpromazine, or prazosin markedly restricted the enhancement of intraspinal transmission by IBMX to levels typically produced on spinal reflex pathways. Clonidine markedly depressed transmission through both pathways and prevented enhancement by the phosphodiesterase inhibitors. Yohimbine or tolazoline antagonized the depressant effects of clonidine and restored the ability of the phosphodiesterase inhibitors to enhance transmission. Somatic spinal reflexes were not affected by the phosphodiesterase inhibitors. The results suggest that descending norepinephrine pathways to sympathetic preganglionic neurons activate adenylate cyclase to generate cyclic AMP which increases neuronal excitability, possibly by phosphorylating membrane proteins. Clonidine appears to depress neuronal excitability by inhibiting adenylate cyclase through activation of alpha 2-adrenergic receptors.