The potential role of the habenula in the transsynaptic regulation of the activity of ascending dopaminergic systems has been investigated in the rat by studying the effect of an acute interruption of impulse traffic in the diencephalic conduction system (stria medullaris-habenula-fasciculus retroflexus) and of pharmacological manipulation of various neurotransmitter systems in the interpeduncular nucleus on dopamine metabolism in several dopaminergic projection fields. The bilateral infusion of tetrodotoxin into the fasciculus retroflexus (which conveys the habenulointerpeduncular tract) of conscious rats markedly increased homovanillic acid levels and dopamine synthesis and utilization in the medial prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, olfactory tubercle and striatum. Similar changes in dopamine metabolism were observed in these areas after bilateral infusion of tetrodotoxin into the stria medullaris (which conveys most of the afferents to the habenula). Infusion of atropine (0.4-1 micrograms) into the interpeduncular nucleus increased homovanillic acid concentrations and dopamine utilization in the medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens but not in the olfactory tubercle and striatum. Moreover, intra-interpeduncular injection of oxotremorine (17 micrograms) antagonized the increase in dopamine utilization in the nucleus accumbens (but not in the olfactory tubercle) induced by an intrafasciculus retroflexus infusion of tetrodotoxin. Local infusion of naloxone (20 micrograms) into the interpeduncular nucleus increased homovanillic acid concentrations in the nucleus accumbens and olfactory tubercle but not in the medial prefrontal cortex and striatum. In contrast, intra-interpeduncular nucleus infusion of the substance P antagonist D-Arg1, D-Pro2, D-Trp7,9, Leu11-substance P or of substance P antiserum failed to alter homovanillic acid levels in the 4 dopamine-rich areas investigated. Finally, intraraphé medianus (but not intraraphé dorsalis) infusion of muscimol (25 ng) moderately increased dopamine synthesis in the nucleus accumbens and striatum. The present findings suggest that the habenulointerpeduncular pathways exert a tonic inhibitory influence on mesocortical, mesolimbic and mesostriatal dopaminergic neurons. Cholinergic and/or opioid peptidergic neurons coursing through the fasciculus retroflexus as well as ascending serotonergic neurons originating in the raphé medianus could take part in this inhibitory control of ascending dopaminergic neurons.