Protein kinase C (PKC), a calcium-dependent phospholipid-sensitive kinase which is selectively activated by phorbol esters, is thought to play an important role in several cellular processes. In mammalian brain PKC is present in high concentrations and has been shown to phosphorylate several substrate phosphoproteins, one of which may be involved in the generation of long-term potentiation (LTP), a long-lasting increase in synaptic efficacy evoked by brief, high-frequency stimulation. Since the hippocampus contains one of the brain's highest levels of binding sites for phorbol esters and is the site where LTP has been most thoroughly characterized, we examined the effects of phorbol esters on hippocampal synaptic transmission and LTP. We found that phorbol esters profoundly potentiate excitatory synaptic transmission in the hippocampus in a manner that appears indistinguishable from LTP. Furthermore, after maximal synaptic enhancement by phorbol esters, LTP can no longer be elicited. Although the site of synaptic enhancement during LTP is not clearly established, phorbol esters appear to potentiate synaptic transmission by acting primarily at a presynaptic locus since changes in the postsynaptic responses to the putative transmitter, glutamate, cannot account for the increased synaptic responses induced by phorbol esters. These findings, in conjunction with previous biochemical studies, raise the possibility that, in mammalian brain, PKC plays a role in controlling the release of neurotransmitter and may be involved in the generation of LTP.