The estimation of sympathetic nervous activity by measurement of plasma norepinephrine (NE) concentration assumes a constant relation between this and the synaptic cleft concentration. This assumption would be incorrect if the clearance of plasma NE could be varied without affecting its removal from the synaptic cleft, so we compared the clearance of plasma NE in mild hypertensives and normal subjects by measurement of its plasma concentration during a 0.5-hr infusion at 0.07 microgram/kg/min; there were no differences. The simultaneous infusion of isoproterenol, 0.02 microgram/kg/min, led to an increase in heart rate and NE clearance. There was partial inhibition of catechol-O-methyltransferase by a single oral dose of alpha-methyldopa, 250 mg, which reduced the clearance of both catecholamines (CAs) by about 20%. After the end of the infusions containing isoproterenol, the tachycardia persisted for more than 1 hr and declined more slowly in the hypertensives than the normals. In contrast, plasma concentrations of both CAs returned to basal values within a few minutes. The persistent tachycardia may be due to rerelease of isoproterenol into the synaptic cleft, since stimulation of sympathetic activity by assumption of the erect posture was associated with an exaggerated increase in heart rate (by 48/min after infusion and 23/min before infusion). The study therefore suggests that synaptic cleft and plasma CA concentrations can be independently manipulated and the relation between them may be different in hypertensive patients and normal control subjects.