Chronic administration of 2,4-dithiobiuret (DTB), causes delayed-onset neuromuscular weakness in rats. This effect results from inhibition of quantal release of acetylcholine (ACh) from motor nerve terminals. The effects of noncholinergic neurotransmission are unknown. The purpose of the present study was to examine the presynaptic mechanisms involved in DTB-induced inhibition of ACh release, particularly, the specificity of action of DTB for cholinergic secretion. Differentiated pheochromocytoma (PC12) cells were used to compare the effects of DTB on the content and release of ACh and dopamine (DA) using neurochemical techniques. At concentrations of 50 to 1000 microM, DTB had little or no effect on [3H]choline uptake or on the spontaneous release of endogenous or [3H]ACh, but caused a significant decrease in release of endogenous or [3H]ACh elicited by depolarization with elevated extracellular [K+]. DTB reduced evoked release of ACh without altering cellular levels of ACh or choline, suggesting that DTB acts directly on mechanisms involved in ACh release. These alterations occurred without prominent alterations in [Ca2+]i as measured by fluorescence microscopy of individual PC12 cells loaded with fura-2. Moreover, DTB did not affect the increase of [Ca2+]i of PC12 cells in response to KCl-induced depolarization. alpha-Latrotoxin-stimulated release of ACh was not inhibited by DTB. DTB-induced suppression of depolarization-evoked release of [3H]ACh was associated with an increased level of [3H]ACh in the vesicular pool although the cytosolic pool was unaffected. High concentrations of DTB also reduced depolarization-evoked release of DA and inhibited DA synthesis resulting in a decrease in the readily releasable pool of DA. These effects occurred at higher concentrations and after longer exposures to DTB than were necessary to alter ACh release. Inasmuch as DA synthesis in the PC12 cell has been shown to be modulated by ACh release, this effect on DA release may reflect a consequence of the diminished release of ACh. These results suggest that DTB alters the release of ACh by interrupting either the mobilization and/or release of the vesicular pool of ACh.