The effects of local application of the 5-HT3 receptor agonist, 1-(m-chlorophenyl)-biguanide (CPBG), and i.p. administration of ethanol on the extracellular levels of dopamine (DA) in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) were studied using in vivo microdialysis. Adult female Wistar rats were implanted with microdialysis probes in the VTA at least 24 h before each experiment. Stable extracellular levels of DA (101 +/- 9 fmol/20 min) were established before initiating the experiments. Application of 10-250 microM CPBG through the microdialysis probe dose-dependently enhanced the extracellular concentrations of DA but did not alter the levels of either 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid or homovanillic acid in the dialysate. The effects of CPBG were reversible and dependent upon Ca2+. Co-perfusion with the 5-HT3 receptor antagonist, 3-tropanyl-indole-3-carboxylate (ICS 205-930), inhibited the effects of CPBG on enhancing extracellular DA levels. The i.p. administration of 2 g/kg ethanol significantly (p < 0.005) enhanced the levels of DA to 150% of baseline values; this ethanol-induced increase was prevented by local perfusion with 100 microM ICS 205-930. These results suggest that 5-HT3 receptors in the VTA are involved in regulating the somatodendritic release of DA and in mediating the stimulatory effects of ethanol on this neuronal system.