Acute hypoxia increases heart rate (HR) and cardiac output (Qt) at a given oxygen consumption (VO2) during submaximal exercise. It is widely believed that the underlying mechanism involves increased sympathetic activation and circulating catecholamines acting on cardiac beta receptors. Recent evidence indicating a continued role for parasympathetic modulation of HR during moderate exercise suggests that increased parasympathetic withdrawal plays a part in the increase in HR and Qt during hypoxic exercise. To test this, we separately blocked the beta-sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in six healthy subjects (five male, one female; mean +/- S.E.M. age = 31.7+/-1.6 years, normoxic maximal VO2 (VO2,max)=3.1+/-0.3 l min(-1)) during exercise in conditions of normoxia and acute hypoxia (inspired oxygen fraction=0.125) to VO2,max. Data were collected on different days under the following conditions: (1)control, (2) after 8.0 mg propranolol i.v. and (3) after 0.8 mg glycopyrrolate i.v. Qt was measured using open-circuit acetylene uptake. Hypoxia increased venous [adrenaline] and [noradrenaline] but not [dopamine] at a given VO2 (P<0.05, P<0.01 and P=0.2, respectively). HR/VO2 and Qt/VO2 increased during hypoxia in all three conditions (P<0.05). Unexpectedly, the effects of hypoxia on HR and Qt were not significantly different from control with either beta-sympathetic or parasympathetic inhibition. These data suggest that although acute exposure to hypoxia increases circulating [catecholamines], the effects of hypoxia on HR and Qt do not necessarily require intact cardiac muscarinic and beta receptors. It may be that cardiac alpha receptors play a primary role in elevating HR and Qt during hypoxic exercise, or perhaps offer an alternative mechanism when other ANS pathways are blocked.