The influence of subthalamic nucleus (STN) afferents on dopaminergic (DA) neurons of the rat substantia nigra (SN) was investigated. Hemisections of the brain placed between the STN and the SN or located anterior to the STN caused an increase in the firing rate of DA cells without producing significant changes in their firing pattern. In contrast, electrolytic and ibotenic acid lesions of the STN resulted in 93% and 49% reductions, respectively, in the level of burst firing without affecting the firing rate of DA cells recorded in the lateral SN. Furthermore, procedures which interrupted the STN input to the SN produced rapid pacemaker-like firing in 18% of the lateral SN DA neurons recorded. Activation of the STN using single pulses of electrical stimulation caused: 1) a 20-50 msec inhibition of DA cell firing followed by an excitation, which in 35% of DA cells was accompanied by spikes occurring in a burst-like pattern, and 2) a short-latency inhibition lasting 5-25 msec in 75% of non-DA SN zona reticulata (ZR) neurons. On the other hand, stimulation of the STN for 1 minute at 20 Hz resulted in an initial decrease in DA cell burst firing followed by elevated firing rates and increased burst firing by 30-60 minutes after the stimulation. Pharmacological activation of the STN by infusion of bicuculline caused a rapid inhibition of DA cells followed by a two-fold increase in burst firing 6-14 minutes later, whereas SN ZR cells responded with an elevation in firing rate which dissipated in 6-14 minutes. Muscimol-induced STN inhibition produced complimentary biphasic changes in SN neuron firing: 1) an initial increase followed by a decrease in burst firing and firing rate of DA neurons and 2) a rapid inhibition followed by an excitation of ZR cells over a similar time course. Thus, the STN appears to exert a dual action on SN DA cells: 1) initial inhibition possibly mediated through STN excitation of the inhibitory SN ZR projections to DA cells, and 2) a facilitation of burst firing which may be a direct effect of excitatory STN afferents.