Fast confocal laser-scanning microscopy was used to study spatiotemporal properties of IP(3)-mediated Ca(2+) release signals in human SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells. [Ca(2+)](i) increases were not affected by ryanodine (30 microgM) or caffeine (10 mM) and largely insensitive to removal of external Ca(2+), indicating predominance of IP(3)-induced Ca(2+) release. Ca(2+) signals evoked by high concentration (10 microM) of the muscarinic agonist carbachol appeared as self-propagating waves initiating in cell processes. At low carbachol concentrations (500 nM) Ca(2+) changes in most cells displayed striking spatiotemporal heterogeneity. The Ca(2+) response in the cell body was delayed and had a smaller amplitude and a slower rise time than that in processes. Ca(2+) changes in processes either occurred in a homogeneous manner throughout the whole process or were sometimes confined to hot spots. Regional differences in surface-to-volume ratio appear to be critical clues that determine the spatiotemporal pattern of intracellular Ca(2+) release signals.