To investigate the hypothesis that oxytocin may be released within the magnocellular nuclei in vivo, push-pull cannula perfusions were performed in anaesthetized lactating rats in one supraoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus while recording the intramammary pressure and/or the electrical activity of oxytocin cells in the contralateral supraoptic nucleus. Oxytocin content was measured in samples collected over 15 min, under various conditions: 1) with no stimulation; 2) during suckling and suckling-induced reflex milk ejections; 3) during electrical stimulation of the neuro-hypophysis by trains of pulses that mimicked oxytocin cell bursts; 4) under osmotic stimulation by i.p. injection of 2 ml of 1.5 M NaCl to evoke a tonic and sustained oxytocin release from the neurohypophysis. Oxytocin release within the supraoptic nucleus increased significantly during the milk ejection reflex and, to a lesser extent, during burst-like electrical stimulation of the neurohypophysis. In suckled rats, the increase started before the first reflex milk ejection occurred. There was no apparent correlation between the amount of oxytocin in the perfusates and the number of milk ejections and oxytocin cell bursts occurring during each perfusion period. The amount of oxytocin in the perfusates further increased-during facilitation of the milk ejection reflex by intraventricular injections of oxytocin or its analogue, isotocin. When suckling failed to evoke the milk ejection reflex, there was no change in intra-supraoptic oxytocin release. There was also no change after osmotic stimulation. When the push-pull cannula was positioned outside the supraoptic nucleus, there was no increase in the amount of oxytocin during the three types of stimulation tested. These results provide evidence for an endogenous release of oxytocin within the magnocellular nuclei in lactating rats. It is suggested that the increase in such a release induced by suckling is likely to be a prerequisite for the onset and the maintenance of the characteristic intermittent bursting electrical activity of oxytocin cells leading to milk ejections.