Recent evidence suggests that neural transmitters, including neuropeptides, may modulate the release of mast cell mediators. Because neuropeptide Y (NPY) has recently been recognized as a putative cotransmitter in noradrenergic neurons, we studied the effect of NPY on purified rat peritoneal mast cells. NPY induced mast cell degranulation, as assessed by a dose-dependent increase in net release of beta-hexosaminidase. The concentration that produced 50% of the maximal effect, approximately 10 mumol/L, evoked a 40% +/- 3% release. As previously reported for other neuropeptides, release was fast with maximal release already achieved at 60 seconds. Release was at 4 degrees C. In contrast to its effects on mast cell degranulation, NPY had no effect on the generation of prostaglandin D2, the major mast cell cyclooxygenase product. By comparison, the calcium ionophore A23187, at doses (4 mumol/L) that evoked comparable release of beta-hexosaminidase, stimulated a net release of 37 +/- 9 ng of PGD2 per 10(6) mast cells. These results raise the possibility that NPY may act as a modulator between the autonomic nervous system and mast cells. The results also imply that with neuropeptide stimulation, the release of preformed and newly formed mast cell mediators are mediated through independent pathways.