This study tested the hypothesis that cannabinoid agonists, applied locally into the pars reticulata of substantia nigra (SNpr), could modulate striatonigral transmission, without affecting the response of SNpr neurons to iontophoretically-applied GABA. Multibarreled glass capillary electrode assemblies were used for extracellular recording of the spontaneous electrical activity of single SNpr cells in anesthetized rats. Local pressure ejection of the cannabinoid agonists Win 55212-2 (WIN2) and CP 55940 increased SNpr spontaneous firing rate by 13-46%, similar to the effects of systemic injections. Neither WIN2 nor CP 55940 had an effect on the slowing of SNpr neuron activity in response to iontophoretic GABA. Local pressure application of Win 55212-3 (the much less active enantiomer of WIN2) produced an insignificant decrease in SNpr firing rate. Similarly, locally applied vehicle (45% 2-hydroxypropyl-beta-cyclodextrin) produced insignificant decreases in SNpr firing. A second application of cannabinoid agonist produced a much smaller effect, suggesting desensitization. Increasing the interval between CP 55940 applications to 45 min showed recovery of sensitivity to the agonist. Local application of the cannabinoid antagonist, SR 141716A, significantly decreased spontaneous cell firing by 34%. CP 55940, when given immediately following or concurrently with the antagonist application failed to produce the expected increase in discharge rate over baseline. A second application of CP 55940 45 min later produced a 26% increase in firing rate. Bicuculline methiodide (BMI) was applied locally causing a significant increase in SNpr cell firing. CP 55940, when locally administered concurrently with bicuculline methiodide, had no further effect on the firing rate of the cell. Based on the reported presynaptic localization of cannabinoid receptors in SNpr, these findings suggest that cannabinoids act within the SNpr to modulate striatonigral neurotransmission presynaptically. The effect of SR 141716A suggests that an endogenous cannabinoid may mediate striato-nigral transmission.