Melatonin, a hormone produced and released by the pineal gland is also synthesized by cells of the gastrointestinal wall, where it might be a local regulator of gut functions. In this study, we investigated the possible role of melatonin as a modulator of the enteric nervous system. Intracellular recordings were made in neurons of the submucosal plexus from the guinea-pig ileum to measure the melatonin effects on their electrophysiological properties. Melatonin did not alter the membrane potential, the membrane resistance and the noradrenergic inhibitory postsynaptic potentials. However, melatonin (30-3000 microM) reversibly decreased the amplitude of nicotinic excitatory postynaptic potentials (EPSPs) in a concentration-dependent manner (IC50 = 247 microM). These actions of melatonin were not modified by the presence of idazoxan and atropine indicating that they are not mediated by endogenous release of acetylcholine, noradrenaline, or by direct activation of alpha 2-adrenoceptors or muscarinic receptors. The superfusion of melatonin also blocked the nicotinic depolarizations induced by locally applied acetylcholine, indicating that at least part of its effects are postsynaptic. In voltage-clamp experiments, using the whole-cell configuration, melatonin also inhibited the nicotinic inward currents induced by acetylcholine (IACh) in a concentration-dependent manner (IC50 = 257 microM). Melatonin decreased the maximal IACh but did not affect the potency of acetylcholine to induce this current, indicating a noncompetitive antagonism. This effect was voltage-dependent. Our observations indicate that melatonin inhibits the fast EPSPs by directly and specifically blocking the nicotinic channels. The relative high concentrations of melatonin required to produce such an effect rules this out as one of its humoral actions. Such an effect, however, might be of physiological significance close to the cells that release melatonin in the gastrointestinal wall or in other organs.