Postsynaptic AMPA receptor desensitization leads to depression at some synapses. Here we examine whether desensitization occurs at mossy fiber to granule cell synapses and how synaptic architecture could contribute. We made whole-cell voltage-clamp recordings from granule cells in rat cerebellar slices at 34 degrees C, and stimulated mossy fibers with paired pulses. The amplitude of the second EPSC was depressed by 60% at 10 msec and recovered with tau approximately 30 msec. This fast component of recovery from depression was reduced by cyclothiazide and enhanced when release probability was increased, suggesting that it reflects postsynaptic receptor desensitization. We evaluated the importance of synaptic ultrastructure to spillover and desensitization by using serial electron microscopy to reconstruct mossy fiber glomeruli. We found that mossy fiber boutons had hundreds of release sites, that the average center-to-center distance between nearest release sites was 0.46 microm, and that these sites had an average of 7.1 neighbors within 1 microm. In addition, glia did not isolate release sites from each other. By contrast, desensitization plays no role in paired-pulse depression at the cerebellar climbing fiber, where glial ensheathment of synapses is nearly complete. This suggests that the architecture of the mossy fiber glomerulus can lead to desensitization and short-term depression. Modeling indicates that, as a consequence of the close spacing of release sites, glutamate released from a single site can desensitize AMPA receptors at neighboring sites, even when the probability of release (p(r)) is low. When p(r) is high, desensitization would be accentuated by such factors as glutamate pooling.