The role of excitatory amino acid (EAA) receptors located in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in tonic and phasic regulation of dopamine release in the ventral striatum was investigated. Microdialysis in conscious rats was used to assess dopamine release primarily from the nucleus accumbens shell region of the ventral striatum while applying EAA antagonists or agonists to the VTA. Infusion of the AMPA/kainate receptor antagonist 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione (25 and 100 microM) into the VTA did not affect dopamine release in the ventral striatum. In contrast, intra-VTA infusion of the NMDA receptor antagonist 2-amino-5-phosphopentanoic acid (100 and 500 microM) dose-dependently decreased the striatal release of dopamine. Intra-VTA application of the ionotropic EAA receptor agonists NMDA and AMPA dose-dependently (10 and 100 microM) increased dopamine efflux in the ventral striatum. However, infusion of 50 or 500 microM trans-(+/-)-1-amino-1,3-cyclopentanedicarboxylic acid (ACPD), a metabotropic EAA receptor agonist, did not significantly affect these levels. These data suggest that NMDA receptors in the VTA exert a tonic excitatory influence on dopamine release in the ventral striatum. Furthermore, dopamine neurotransmission in this region may be enhanced by activation of NMDA and AMPA receptors, but not ACPD-sensitive metabotropic receptors, located in the VTA. These data further suggest that EAA regulation of dopamine release primarily occurs in the VTA as opposed to presynaptically at the terminal level.