Zn(2+) is found in glutamatergic nerve terminals throughout the mammalian forebrain and has diverse extracellular and intracellular actions. The anatomical location and possible synaptic signaling role for this cation have led to the hypothesis that Zn(2+) is released from presynaptic boutons, traverses the synaptic cleft, and enters postsynaptic neurons. However, these events have not been directly observed or characterized. Here we show, using microfluorescence imaging in rat hippocampal slices, that brief trains of electrical stimulation of mossy fibers caused immediate release of Zn(2+) from synaptic terminals into the extracellular microenvironment. Release was induced across a broad range of stimulus intensities and frequencies, including those likely to induce long-term potentiation. The amount of Zn(2+) release was dependent on stimulation frequency (1-200 Hz) and intensity. Release of Zn(2+) required sodium-dependent action potentials and was dependent on extracellular Ca(2+). Once released, Zn(2+) crosses the synaptic cleft and enters postsynaptic neurons, producing increases in intracellular Zn(2+) concentration. These results indicate that, like a neurotransmitter, Zn(2+) is stored in synaptic vesicles and is released into the synaptic cleft. However, unlike conventional transmitters, it also enters postsynaptic neurons, where it may have manifold physiological functions as an intracellular second messenger.