The ability of several 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) analogues to inhibit the uptake of [3H]serotonin (5-HT), dopamine (DA) and norepinephrine (NE) into synaptosomes was examined. In addition, the ability of the compounds to inhibit the uptake of [3H]5-HT and DA into synaptosomes from rats pretreated with reserpine (5 mg/kg i.p., 16 h pretreatment) was compared to control experiments. All of the test compounds were found to be potent releasers of non-vesicular 5-HT (the reserpine IC50 was significantly smaller than the control IC50). The range of 5-HT inhibitory activity corresponds well to the small range of ED50 values of the test compounds to substitute in drug discrimination experiments with animals trained to discriminate MDMA or S-(+)-N-methyl-1-(1,3-benzodioxol-5-yl)-2-aminobutane (S-MBDB) from saline. In contrast, there was a wide range of potency for the inhibition of NE and DA uptake. In addition, several of the analogues appeared to be pure uptake inhibitors of DA while others were found to be releasers of non-vesicular DA. Several of the compounds were very selective for 5-HT over DA or NE uptake inhibition, including 3-methoxy-4-methylamphetamine (MMA) and 5-methoxy-6-methyl-2-aminoindan (MMAI). A correlation was noted between the 5-HT neurotoxic potential of some of the test compounds and their relative ability to induce a release of non-vesicular DA. The potential catechol metabolites of the methylenedioxy-substituted compounds also showed potent monoamine releasing properties, suggesting that metabolism may play a role in the neurotoxic actions of some of these drugs. The present data support the hypothesis that drug-stimulated non-vesicular 5-HT release is primarily responsible for the discriminative cue of MDMA.