The amygdala plays a key role in fear and anxiety. The intercalated islands are clusters of glutamate-responsive GABAergic neurons rich in cholecystokinin (CCK)-2 receptors which control the trafficking of nerve impulses from the cerebral cortex to the central nucleus of amygdala. In this study, the nature of the CCK-glutamate-GABA interactions within the rat rostral amygdala, and their relevance for anxiety, were studied. CCK/gastrin-like immunoreactive nerve terminals were found to be mainly restricted to the paracapsular intercalated islands and the rostrolateral part of the main intercalated island. Behaviourally, the bilateral microinjection of CCK-4 (0.043-4.3 pmol/side) or CCK-8S (4.3 pmol/side) into the rostrolateral amygdala reduced the open-arm exploration in the elevated plus-maze without affecting locomotion. In contrast, neither CCK-4 nor CCK-8S (0.043-4.3 pmol/side) had any effects in the shock-probe burying test as compared with their saline-treated controls. Biochemically, CCK-4 (0.3 and 1.5 microm), unlike CCK-8S, enhanced significantly the K(+)-stimulated release of [(3)H]GABA from amygdala slices. These effects were fully prevented by prior superfusion of the slices with either the selective CCK-2 receptor antagonist CR2945 (3 microm), or 6,7-dinitroquinoxaline-2,3(1H,4H)-dione (DNQX), 10 microm, a glutamatergic (+/-)-alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid (AMPA)/kainate receptor antagonist. It is suggested that CCK modulates glutamate-GABA mechanisms by acting on CCK-2 receptors via volume transmission occurring at the level of the basolateral amygdaloid nucleus and/or by synaptic or perisynaptic volume transmission in the region of the rostrolateral main and paracapsular intercalated islands, resulting in subsequent disinhibition of the central amygdaloid nucleus and anxiety or panic-like behaviour.