The effects of extracellularly applied membrane-permeant Ca2+ chelators on field excitatory postsynaptic potentials were determined in the hippocampal CA1 region of rat brain slices. Field excitatory postsynaptic potentials in slices perfused with 0.05-50 microM bis-(-O-aminophenoxy)-ethane-N,N,N,N,-tetraacetic acid acetoxymethyl (BAPTA-AM) for 15 min were reversibly attenuated by 10-45% in a concentration-dependent manner. Attenuation occurred earlier at higher concentrations of BAPTA-AM, thus indicating that the rate of accumulation of BAPTA salt was concentration dependent. Antidromically evoked responses and presynaptic volleys were unaffected by BAPTA-AM. Attenuation of the field excitatory postsynaptic potentials by BAPTA-AM was temporarily eliminated by repetitive stimulation at 1 Hz, suggesting saturation of the chelator's Ca(2+)-binding capacity. The amplitude of field excitatory postsynaptic potentials was unaffected by similar applications of 5'5-dinitro-BAPTA-AM, a low Ca(2+)-affinity BAPTA analogue, and EGTA-AM (5 or 50 microM), a chelator with slow Ca(2+)-binding kinetics, suggesting a dependence of the BAPTA-AM effect on fast Ca2+ binding and high Ca2+ affinity. BAPTA-AM concentrations as low as 0.05 microM were effective provided application was prolonged to 40 min. Probenecid (1 mM), an anion transport inhibitor, accelerated the onset and significantly enhanced the BAPTA-mediated synaptic attenuation caused by low concentrations of BAPTA-AM. These data show that even very low extracellular concentrations of BAPTA-AM can profoundly affect synaptic transmission provided that sufficient chelator accumulates presynaptically. The effectiveness of BAPTA-AM can be increased by procedures which inhibit chelator extrusion.