Many cells in the outer two layers of the dorsal cochlear nucleus (DCN) express high levels of the phospholipid-activated, calcium dependent kinase, protein kinase C (PKC), an enzyme that can phosphorylate numerous proteins involved in neurotransmission and postsynaptic signaling. We investigated the effects of stimulating PKC with phorbol esters (phorbol 12-13 diacetate; PDAc) on parallel fiber synaptic transmission in brain slices of the guinea pig DCN. Phorbol esters increased the amplitude of the postsynaptic components of the field potential, including the excitatory post-synaptic field potential (fEPSP) and the population spike following electric stimulation of parallel fibers. Phorbol esters simultaneously decreased paired-pulse facilitation, suggesting that transmitter release mechanisms were affected. Potentiation of synaptic transmission and diminished paired-pulse potentiation were also observed in intracellular recordings of DCN neurons. The effects of phorbol esters were antagonized by the specific PKC blockers bisindolylmaleimide and calphostin C. Although modulation of the synaptic potentials appears to be mediated by presynaptic PKC, the differential effects of PDAc on the fEPSP and the population spike also suggest the involvement of postsynaptic PKC and postsynaptic targets. These experiments demonstrate that protein kinase C is capable of profoundly modulating synaptic transmission at parallel fiber synapses in the DCN.