Extracellular levels of aspartate, glutamate and glutamine were monitored by microdialysis in the dorsal hippocampus of freely moving rats following the administration of a convulsant dose of pilocarpine (400 mg/kg, i.p.). Rats were either pretreated with the glutamate uptake inhibitor, 1-trans-pyrrolidine-2,4-dicarboxylic acid (PDC, 1 mM in the perfusion medium, -25 min), or received pilocarpine directly. All rats injected with pilocarpine (with or without PDC pretreatment) developed limbic seizures (latency 15.4 +/- 2.4 min). Without PDC pretreatment there were no significant changes in extracellular levels of aspartate, glutamate and glutamine following pilocarpine administration until the onset of limbic seizures when glutamine levels fell by 35%. Following PDC pretreatment there were large and sustained increases in extracellular hippocampal aspartate (250%) and glutamate (55%) levels, but no significant change in the glutamine level. When pilocarpine was administered to this group of rats, there were further selective, significant, transient increases in the extracellular levels of aspartate (31%) and glutamate (18%) which preceded the onset of seizures. Aspartate and glutamate levels were not significantly increased (relative to PDC controls) during seizures. The conditions for pilocarpine-induced increases in aspartate and glutamate release were established in parallel groups of anaesthetised rats where pilocarpine was administered via a microdialysis probe in the dorsal hippocampus. Following the infusion of 10 mM pilocarpine there were large and rapid increases in the levels of aspartate (143%) and glutamate (179%), which were completely abolished by the absence of calcium in the perfusion medium, or by the presence of atropine (20 mM) or tetrodotoxin (1 microM).