In the presence of magnesium, although ineffective alone, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA, 10(-3) M plus glycine 10(-6) M) stimulated the release of [3H]-dopamine ([3H]-DA) continuously synthesized from [3H]-tyrosine when applied with ACh, the amplitude of the NMDA response being dependent on the ACh concentration. Experiments performed with nicotine, oxotremorine and the antagonists hexamethonium and atropine indicated that both muscarinic and nicotinic receptors are involved in the permissive effect of ACh on the NMDA response. Data obtained in the absence of magnesium or with increasing concentrations of magnesium revealed that the permissive effect of ACh on the NMDA-evoked release of [3H]-DA results from removal of the magnesium block of NMDA receptors. The NMDA-evoked release of [3H]-DA observed in the presence of ACh, nicotine or oxotremorine (10(-3) M) was blocked by either of the protein kinase C inhibitors staurosporine (10(-8) M) and chelerythrine (5 x 10(-7) M). However, these drugs were without effect on responses induced by ACh, nicotine or oxotremorine alone and by NMDA (10(-3) M, in the absence of magnesium). Supporting further the involvement of a protein kinase C activation in the permissive effects of ACh or the cholinergic agonists, NMDA (10(-3) M) stimulated the release of [3H]-DA in the presence of both magnesium and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (10(-6) M) or 1 -oleoyl-2-acetyl-glycerol (10(-4) M), and the NMDA response was markedly potentiated by ionomycin (10(-7) M) used at a concentration that stimulated [3H]-DA release to about the same degree as ACh (10(-4) M). Therefore, besides their depolarizing action, ACh, nicotine and oxotremorine could eliminate the magnesium block of NMDA receptors by activation of protein kinase C.