The enteric nervous system controls most of the gastrointestinal functions. We applied confocal microscopy and the Ca2+ indicator Fluo-3 as an optical approach to study synaptic activation in cultures of myenteric neurones. The optical recording of [Ca2+]i (the intracellular Ca2+ concentration) was used to monitor activation, since [Ca2+]i is crucial in the coupling between neuronal excitation and the activation of several intracellular events. Extracellular fibre tract stimulation (2 s, 30 Hz) caused a transient [Ca2+]i rise in a subset of neurones (50%). These transients lasted for 5.2 s (n=36), with an average amplitude of 3.4 +/- 1.3 times the basal concentration. The removal of extracellular Ca2+ (n=15) or the application of 10-6 M tetrodotoxin (n=16) blocked this response. The N-type Ca2+-channel blocker omega-conotoxin (5 x 10 -7M) abolished the [Ca2+]i increase, while blockade of L-type and P/Q type Ca2+ channels had no effect. Single stimuli evoked a [Ca2+]i rise in the processes. omega-conotoxin-sensitive postsynaptic events required repetitive stimulation. Cholinergic blockade did not inhibit the [Ca2+]i rise in all neurones, suggesting that, besides acetylcholine, other neurotransmitters are involved. Optical imaging of [Ca2+]i can be used to study synaptic spread of activation in enteric neuronal circuits expressed in culture.