The role of cyclic nucleotides as intracellular second messengers mediating the excitatory chronotropic and inotropic actions of octopamine (OCT) and dopamine (DA) on the neurogenic Limulus heart was investigated. Tissue levels of cAMP, but not cGMP, were significantly increased in isolated cardiac ganglia and cardiac muscle following 10 min exposure to 10(-5) M OCT or 10(-5) M DA. In both tissues, OCT elicited larger increases in cAMP than did DA. Amine-induced cAMP accumulation in the cardiac ganglion and in the cardiac muscle was prevented by the alpha-adrenergic blocker phentolamine. The adenylate cyclase activator forskolin and the phosphodiesterase inhibitor IBMX produced amine-like chronotropic and inotropic effects when applied to the isolated heart preparation. However, the kinetics of the responses differed for the two agents. Additional pharmacological agents (RO-20-1724, papaverine, SQ 20,009, and 8-parachloro-phenylthio cAMP) also had amine-like effects but to a lesser extent. The chronotropic, but not inotropic, effects of OCT and DA were potentiated in the presence of IBMX. These data suggest that a cAMP-dependent mechanism underlies the excitatory effects of the neuromodulators OCT and DA on the Limulus heart.