Extracellular recordings of action potentials were made from neurones antidromically identified as neurosecretory cells in the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei of urethane-anesthetized female rats. Eighty-six neurones were examined for their responsiveness to 10 ng of angiotensin II (AII) injected into the third cerebral ventricle and 78 (91%) of them increased their firing rate following the AII injection. None of the neurosecretory cells tested showed a response to the intraventricular (IVT) injection of isotonic NaCl. Thalamic neurones and non-neurosecretory hypothalamic neurones did not respond to the AII given IVT. Firing activity of 13 neurosecretory neurones was recorded during reflex milk ejection induced by suckling pups in the lactating rats. Seven of them were classified as oxytocinergic cells because they showed a burst of activity before reflex milk ejections and the remaining 6 neurones which gave no burst of firing before milk ejections were classified as nonoxytocinergic neurones. The IVT application of AII resulted in activation of all the oxytocinergic neurones and 5 of the 6 non-oxytocinergic neurones. The effect of AII on the firing of the neurosecretory cell was inhibited by the simultaneous application of Sar1-Ile8-AII (1 microgram), a competitive AII antagonist. The IVT injection of the antagonist alone inhibited the spontaneous firing of the neurosecretory cells, but it did not affect the firing of thalamic or non-neurosecretory hypothalamic neurones. Hypertonic NaCl (0.85 M NaCl, 1 mu1 IVT) also activated 13 of 20 neurosecretory cells tested. Combined application of AII and hypertonic NaCl elicited a marked potentiation of the response of neurosecretory cells to each of the stimuli. These findings indicate that AII activates neurosecretory cells stimulating specific AII receptors in the brain and that AII has a synergistic action with hypertonic NaCl. Inhibition of spontaneous activity of neurosecretory cells by a competitive AII antagonist suggests that endogenous AII may participate in the maintenance of basal activity of neurosecretory cells.