Magnocellular neurones of the hypothalamus release vasopressin and oxytocin from their dendrites and soma. Using a combination of electrophysiology, microdialysis, in vitro explants, and radioimmunoassay we assessed the involvement of intracellular Ca(2+) stores in the regulation of dendritic vasopressin release. Thapsigargin and cyclopiazonic acid, which mobilize Ca(2+) from intracellular stores of the endoplasmic reticulum, evoked vasopressin release from dendrites and somata of magnocellular neurones in the supraoptic nucleus. Thapsigargin also produced a dramatic potentiation of dendritic vasopressin release evoked by osmotic or high potassium stimulation. This effect is long lasting, time dependent, and specific to thapsigargin as caffeine and ryanodine had no effect. Furthermore, antidromic activation of electrical activity in the cell bodies released vasopressin from dendrites only after thapsigargin pretreatment. Thus, exposure to Ca(2+) mobilizers such as thapsigargin or cyclopiazonic acid primes the releasable pool of vasopressin in the dendrites, so that release can subsequently be evoked by electrical and depolarization-dependent activation. Vasopressin itself is effective in inducing dendritic vasopressin release, but it is ineffective in producing priming.