Central stimulant actions of 10 methylxanthines in mice correlate with affinities for adenosine receptors labeled with N6-[3H]cyclohexyladenosine. Affinities of methylxanthines for adenosine receptors are consonant with central levels attained at behaviorally effective doses. The much higher concentrations of methylxanthines required to influence benzodiazepine receptor binding do not correlate with behavioral potency. N6-(L-Phenylisopropyl)adenosine (L-PIA), a metabolically stable analog of adenosine with high affinity for adenosine receptors, is an extremely potent behavioral depressant, reducing locomotor activity of mice at doses as little as 0.05 mumol/kg. The D isomer, which has much less affinity for adenosine receptors, is much less active as a central depressant. Theophylline stimulates locomotor activity and reverses depressant effects of L-PIA. Caffeine or 1,7-dimethylxanthine, when administered alone, elicits biphasic effects, with locomotor depression at lower doses and stimulation at higher doses. When administered with L-PIA, even low doses of caffeine produce marked stimulation. 3-Isobutyl-1-methylxanthine given alone elicits only behavioral depression. However, like theophylline and caffeine, isobutylmethylxanthine reverses the L-PIA-evoked depression, converting it into pronounced locomotor stimulation. The data strongly suggest that the behavioral stimulant effects of methylxanthines involve a blockade of central adenosine receptors.