Atropine has previously been found to suppress visually induced myopia both in animals and humans. The mechanism of its action is unclear. We have studied its retinal effects in an in vitro preparation, using the retina-pigment epithelium-choroid complex of the chick eye. In vivo, deprivation myopia was induced by translucent goggles. Atropine solution was injected into the vitreous at two-day intervals. Dopamine release from the retina following atropine injection in vivo and from the in vitro retina preparation was quantified by HPLC-EC. In vitro preparations of the isolated chick retina-pigment epithelium-choroid were superfused with atropine. Light-induced potentials (local ERG), slow standing potentials from the retinal pigment epithelium/neural retina, and extracellular potassium concentrations were recorded. In line with previous findings, intravitreal injections of atropine (25 microg, 250 microg) reduced deprivation myopia in a dose-dependent manner. Atropine increased the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine into the superfusate in vitro at 100-500 microM and into the vitreous in vivo at 250 microg. Before an increase was measured in the vitreous, the retinal dopamine content was elevated. In concentrations equivalent to the intravitreal concentration to suppress myopia in vivo (200-800 microM), atropine induced spreading depression (SD) in the in vitro preparation. In contrast, muscarinic agonists, acetylcholine and pilocarpine, did not induce SD. Atropine reduced the ERG b- and d-wave, led to damped oscillations of RPE potentials, and reversed the ERG c-wave. Atropine suppressed myopia only at doses at which severe nonspecific side effects were observed in the retina. Atropine seems to intrude massively into the vital functions of the retina as indicated by the occurrence of SD. We conclude that atropine, by inducing SD, boosts neurotransmitter release from cellular stores, which may cancel out a presumed retinal signal that controls eye growth and through this, myopia.