The chicken retina was exposed to 20% hyposmotic or ischaemia-like (54 mM KCl and 1 mM ouabain) conditions and changes in cell volume, amino acid release and activation of protein tyrosine kinases measured. To investigate possible connection between these cellular events, the effect of tyrosine kinase blockers on (3)H-taurine, (3)H-GABA and (3)H- D-aspartate (as a tracer for glutamate) efflux was examined. Both hyposmotic and ischaemic conditions increased phosphorylation of the tyrosine kinase p125 focal adhesion kinase (p125(FAK)) and the mitogen-activated protein kinase-p38 (MAPK-p38), but not of the extracellular-signal-related kinases-1/2 (ERK1/ERK2), and markedly activated the tyrosine kinase target enzyme phosphatidylinositide 3-kinase (PI3K). Hyposmolarity and ischaemia both led to rapid retinal swelling followed by active volume recovery of 84% (hyposmolarity) and 40% (ischaemia), together with rapid release of taurine, GABA and D-aspartate. Taurine and GABA efflux under both conditions was reduced markedly by tyrosine kinase and PI3K blockers (50 microM tyrphostin A23, 50 microM genistein, 100 nM wortmannin, 25 microM LY294002) and was decreased by 85% when ischaemia-induced swelling was prevented. About 65% of D-aspartate efflux occurred irrespective of swelling in ischaemia and was either less sensitive (hyposmotic) or largely resistant (ischaemia) to the blockers. These results suggest that in ischaemia, GABA and taurine react primarily to swelling with a typical osmolyte response, while glutamate differs in its release mechanisms under both hyposmotic and ischaemic conditions. These findings suggest new strategies for evaluating the contribution of swelling to excitotoxicity in ischaemia.