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It is believed that adenosine is released in ischemic tissues and contributes to reactive hyperemia. We tested this hypothesis in the human forearm using microdialysis to estimate interstitial and intravascular levels of adenosine and caffeine withdrawal to potentiate endogenous adenosine and determine its effect on reactive hyperemia. Forearm blood flow response to ischemia was measured by air plethysmography before and 60 hours after the last dose of caffeine (250 mg TID for 7 days, n=6). Forearm blood flow increased by 274+/-66% and 467+/-97% after 3 minutes of forearm ischemia, before and during caffeine withdrawal, respectively (P<0.05). Thus, caffeine withdrawal enhances reactive hyperemia. To determine the source of adenosine, we measured interstitial adenosine with the use of a microdialysis probe inserted into the flexor digitorum superficialis muscle of the forearm, and we measured intravascular adenosine with the use of a microdialysis probe inserted retrogradely into the medial cubital vein. Dialysate samples were collected at 15-minute intervals during resting, forearm ischemia, and recovery periods. Forearm ischemia failed to increase muscle dialysate concentrations of adenosine but did increase intravascular dialysate adenosine 2.1-fold, from 0.61+/-0.12 to 1.28+/-0.39 micromol/L (P<0.01, n=8). Intravascular dialysate concentrations of thromboxane B2 did not increase during ischemia, ruling out platelet aggregation as a source of adenosine. These results support the hypothesis that endogenous adenosine contributes to reactive hyperemia and indicate that the major source of adenosine in the human forearm is intravascular. We speculate that endothelial cells are the source of intravascular adenosine during ischemia.