Adhesion of human platelets to type I collagen under arterial flow conditions is extremely fast, being mediated primarily by the alpha 2 beta 1 integrin (glycoprotein Ia/IIa). We have investigated the involvement of cyclic nucleotides in platelet adhesion to soluble native collagen immobilized on Sepharose beads using a new microadhesion assay under arterial flow conditions. To prevent platelet stimulation by thromboxanes and adenosine diphosphate (ADP), experiments were performed with aspirin-treated platelets in the presence of ADP-removing enzyme systems such as creatine phosphate/creatine phosphokinase or apyrase. Rapid reciprocal changes in platelet adenosine 3′5′-cyclic monophosphate (cAMP) and guanosine 3′5′-cyclic monophosphate (cGMP) occurred during adhesion. cAMP levels in adherent platelets were 2.4-fold lower than in effluent platelets or in static controls, whereas cGMP levels were increased 2.4-fold. These results suggest that contact between platelets and collagen stimulates guanylate cyclase and inhibits adenylate cyclase. This occurs in the absence of the platelet release reaction. We also studied short-term effects of agents that regulate cyclic nucleotide synthesis, prostaglandin E1 (PGE1) and sodium nitroprusside (SNP). After only 3.8 seconds at 10 to 30 dyne/cm2, PGE1 (10 mumol/L) increased cAMP 16.4- fold, whereas SNP (50 mumol/L) increased cGMP ninefold and caused a 3.2- fold increase in cAMP. Both PGE1 and SNP rapidly (< 5 seconds) inhibited platelet adhesion in a dose-dependent manner that was correlated with the increase in cyclic nucleotides. Our data suggest that cAMP and cGMP play a regulatory role in the initial phases of platelet adhesion to collagen mediated by the alpha 2 beta 1 integrin receptor.