Hyperammonemia is a key factor in the pathogenesis of hepatic encephalopathy (HE) as well as other metabolic encephalopathies, such as those associated with inherited disorders of urea cycle enzymes and in Reye's syndrome. Acute HE results in increased brain ammonia (up to 5 mM), astrocytic swelling, and altered glutamatergic function. In the present study, using fluorescence imaging techniques, acute exposure (10 min) of ammonia (NH4+/NH3) to cultured astrocytes resulted in a concentration-dependent, transient increase in [Ca2+]i. This calcium transient was due to release from intracellular calcium stores, since the response was thapsigargin-sensitive and was still observed in calcium-free buffer. Using an enzyme-linked fluorescence assay, glutamate release was measured indirectly via the production of NADH (a naturally fluorescent product when excited with UV light). NH4+/NH3 (5 mM) stimulated a calcium-dependent glutamate release from cultured astrocytes, which was inhibited after preincubation with 1,2-bis(2-aminophenoxy)ethane-N,N,N',N'-tetraacetic acid acetoxymethyl ester but unaffected after preincubation with glutamate transport inhibitors dihydrokainate and DL-threo-beta-benzyloxyaspartate. NH4+/NH3 (5 mM) also induced a transient intracellular alkaline shift. To investigate whether the effects of NH4+/NH3 were mediated by an increase in pH(i), we applied trimethylamine (TMA+/TMA) as another weak base. TMA+/TMA (5 mM) induced a similar transient increase in both pH(i) and [Ca2+]i (mobilization from intracellular calcium stores) and resulted in calcium-dependent release of glutamate. These results indicate that an acute exposure to ammonia, resulting in cytosolic alkalinization, leads to calcium-dependent glutamate release from astrocytes. A deregulation of glutamate release from astrocytes by ammonia could contribute to glutamate dysfunction consistently observed in acute HE.