The sympathetic-adrenal system is rapidly activated in response to sepsis or hemorrhagic shock, resulting in an increase in circulating levels of catecholamines. Although it has been shown that the occurrence of hepatocellular dysfunction under such conditions is associated with an early and sustained increase in plasma norepinephrine (NE), it remains unknown whether the increased NE per se plays any role in producing hepatocellular dysfunction. To study this, exogenous NE was administered, by implantation of a peritoneal mini-osmotic pump (consistently releasing NE), to produce a plasma level of NE similar to that observed after sepsis or hemorrhage. At 24 h after the pump implantation, cardiac output was determined by dye dilution technique and hepatocellular function [i.e., the maximal velocity (V(max)) and the efficiency of the transport (K(m)) of in vivo indocyanine green clearance) was assessed without blood sampling. In addition, tissue perfusion in various organs was determined using laser Doppler flowmetry. Plasma levels of interleukin-6 were measured by bioassay and liver enzymes were assayed enzymatically. The results indicate that sustained (24 h) elevation of plasma levels of NE caused a decrease in cardiac output and microvascular blood flow in the liver, spleen, and small intestine. In addition, the increase in plasma NE produced significant depression in hepatocellular function as evidenced by reduced V(max) and K(m). This was associated with elevated plasma levels of liver enzymes, indicating hepatocyte injury. In addition, plasma levels of interleukin-6 increased significantly. These findings suggest that sustained elevated levels of NE, observed after sepsis or hemorrhagic shock, may play an important role in producing hepatocellular dysfunction and altered hepatocyte integrity. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.