The modulation of dopamine release by presynaptic nicotinic receptors in vitro is well established, but the significance of this effect in vivo is unclear. We have characterised the effect of nicotine, locally applied via a microdialysis probe, on dopamine release from the terminal regions of three ascending dopaminergic pathways in conscious, freely moving rats. Nicotine caused a dose-dependent increase in dopamine release in the striatum, the nucleus accumbens, and, to a lesser extent, the frontal cortex. Metabolite levels were unaltered by any concentration of nicotine. Prior administration of mecamylamine via the probe abolished the nicotine-evoked increase in dopamine release, confirming the mediation of nicotinic receptors. The dose dependence of mecamylamine-sensitive, nicotine-evoked dopamine release was similar in all three brain regions. However, 10(-5) M tetrodotoxin totally blocked nicotine-stimulated dopamine release in the striatum and the accumbens but not the cortex. Daily subcutaneous injections of nicotine (0.4 mg kg-1 for 7 days) increased the response to a subsequent local application of nicotine in the striatum, and a similar trend was found in the other brain areas. The same daily dose of nicotine given as a continuous infusion had no effect, whereas infusion of 4 mg kg-1 day-1 increased the response to a subsequent nicotine challenge. The localisation and regulation of nicotinic receptors in the terminal fields of dopaminergic pathways are discussed.