In this report we describe extracellular recordings made from ON and ON-OFF directionally selective (DS) ganglion cells in the rabbit retina during perfusion with agonists and antagonists to acetylcholine (ACh), glutamate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Nicotinic ACh agonists strongly excited DS ganglion cell in a dose-dependent manner. Dose-response curves showed a wide range of potencies, with (+/-)-exo-2-(6-chloro-3pyridinyl)-7-azabicyclo[2.2.1] heptane dihydrochloride (epibatidine) > > > nicotine > 1,1-dimethyl-4-phenylpiperazinium iodide = carbachol. In addition, the mixed cholinergic agonist carbachol produced a small excitation, mediated by muscarinic receptors, that could be blocked by atropine. The specific nicotinic antagonists hexamethonium bromide (100 microM), dihydro-beta-erythroidine (50 microM), mecamylamine (50 microM), and tubocurarine (50 microM) blocked the responses to nicotinic agonists. In addition, nicotinic antagonists reduced the light-driven input to DS ganglion cells by approximately 50%. However, attenuated responses were still DS. We deduce that cholinergic input is not required for directional selectivity. These experiments reveal the importance of bipolar cell input mediated by glutamate. N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) excited DS ganglion cells, but NMDA antagonists did not abolish directional selectivity. However, a combined cholinergic and NMDA blockade reduced the responses of DS ganglion cells by > 90%. This indicates that most of the noncholinergic excitatory input appears to be mediated by NMDA receptors, with a small residual made up by alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA)/kainate (KA) receptors. Responses to AMPA and KA were highly variable and often evoked a mixture of excitation and inhibition due to the release of ACh and GABA. Under cholinergic blockade AMPA/KA elicited a strong GABA-mediated inhibition in DS ganglion cells. AMPA/KA antagonists, such as 2,3-dihydroxy-6-nitro-7-sulfamoylbenzo (F)quinoxaline dione and GYKI-53655, promoted null responses and abolished directional selectivity due to the blockade of GABA release. We conclude that GABA release, mediated by non-NMDA glutamate receptors, is an essential part of the mechanism of directional selectivity. The source of the GABA is unknown, but may arise from starburst amacrine cells.