Aniracetam, 1-(1,3-benzodioxol-5-yl-carbonyl)piperidine (1-BCP) and cyclothiazide, three compounds considered to enhance cognition through modulation of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid (AMPA) receptors, were evaluated in the 'kynurenate test', a biochemical assay in which some nootropics have been shown to prevent the antagonism by kynurenic acid of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-evoked [3H]noradrenaline ([3H]NA) release from rat hippocampal slices. Aniracetam attenuated the kynurenate (100 microM) antagonism of the [3H]NA release elicited by 100 microM NMDA with high potency (EC50< or =0.1 microM). Cyclothiazide and 1-BCP were about 10 and 100 times less potent than aniracetam, respectively. The effect of aniracetam persisted in the presence of the AMPA receptor antagonist 6-nitro-7-sulphamoyl-benzo[f]quinoxaline-2,3-dione (NBQX) added at 5 microM, a concentration that did not affect NMDA receptors; in contrast, NBQX reduced the effect of 1-BCP and abolished that of cyclothiazide. The AMPA-evoked release of [3H]NA from hippocampal slices or synaptosomes was enhanced by cyclothiazide, less potently by 1-BCP and weakly by aniracetam. High concentrations of kynurenate (1 mM) antagonized the AMPA-evoked [3H]NA release in slices; this antagonism was attenuated by 1 microM cyclothiazide and reversed to an enhancement of AMPA-evoked [3H]NA release by 10 microM of the drug, but was insensitive to 1-BCP or aniracetam. It is concluded that aniracetam exerts a dual effect on glutamatergic transmission: modulation of NMDA receptor function at nanomolar concentrations, and modulation of AMPA receptors at high micromolar concentrations. As to cyclothiazide and 1-BCP, our data concur with the idea that both compounds largely act through AMPA receptors, although an NMDA component may be involved in the effect of 1-BCP.