In developing cerebellar molecular layer interneurons (MLIs), NMDA increases spontaneous GABA release. This effect had been attributed to either direct activation of presynaptic NMDA receptors (preNMDARs) or an indirect pathway involving activation of somato-dendritic NMDARs followed by passive spread of somatic depolarization along the axon and activation of axonal voltage dependent Ca(2+) channels (VDCCs). Using Ca(2+) imaging and electrophysiology, we searched for preNMDARs by uncaging NMDAR agonists either broadly throughout the whole field or locally at specific axonal locations. Releasing either NMDA or glutamate in the presence of NBQX using short laser pulses elicited current transients that were highly sensitive to the location of the spot and restricted to a small number of varicosities. The signal was abolished in the presence of high Mg(2+) or by the addition of APV. Similar paradigms yielded restricted Ca(2+) transients in interneurons loaded with a Ca(2+) indicator. We found that the synaptic effects of NMDA were not inhibited by blocking VDCCs but were impaired in the presence of the ryanodine receptor antagonist dantrolene. Furthermore, in voltage clamped cells, bath applied NMDA triggers Ca(2+) elevations and induces neurotransmitter release in the axonal compartment. Our results suggest the existence of preNMDARs in developing MLIs and propose their involvement in the NMDA-evoked increase in GABA release by triggering a Ca(2+)-induced Ca(2+) release process mediated by presynaptic Ca(2+) stores. Such a mechanism is likely to exert a crucial role in various forms of Ca(2+)-mediated synaptic plasticity.