The pathophysiology of neurally mediated syncope is poorly understood. It has been widely assumed that excessive sympathetic activation in a setting of left ventricular hypovolemia stimulates ventricular afferents that trigger hypotension and bradycardia. We tested this hypothesis by determining if excessive sympathetic activation precedes development of neurally mediated syncope, and if this correlates with alterations in baroreflex function. We studied the changes in intraarterial blood pressure (BP), heart rate (HR), central venous pressure (CVP), muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA), and plasma catecholamines evoked by upright tilt in recurrent neurally mediated syncope patients (SYN, 5+/-1 episodes/mo, n = 14), age- and sex-matched controls (CON, n = 23), and in healthy subjects who consistently experienced syncope during tilt (FS+, n = 20). Baroreflex responses were evaluated from changes in HR, BP, and MSNA that were obtained after infusions of phenylephrine and sodium nitroprusside. Compared to CON, patients with SYN had blunted increases in MSNA at low tilt levels, followed by a progressive decrease and ultimately complete disappearance of MSNA with syncope. SYN patients also had attenuation of norepinephrine increases and lower baroreflex slope sensitivity, both during tilt and after pharmacologic testing. FS+ subjects had the largest decrease in CVP with tilt and had significant increases in MSNA and heart rate baroreflex slopes. These data challenge the view that excessive generalized sympathetic activation is the precursor of the hemodynamic abnormality underlying recurrent neurally mediated syncope.