In an effort to elucidate the interactions between synaptic vesicles and the membrane of the active zone, we have investigated the structure of interneuronal asymmetric synapses in the neocortex of adult rats using thin-sectioning, freeze-fracture, and negative staining electron microscopy. We identified three subtypes of spherical synaptic vesicles. Type I were agranular vesicles of 47.5 +/- 3.8 nm (mean SD, n = 24) in diameter usually seen aggregated in clusters in the presynaptic bouton. Type II synaptic vesicles were composed of a approximately 45-nm-diameter lipid bilayer sphere encased in a cage 77 +/- 4.6 nm (mean SD, n = 42) in diameter. The cage was composed of open-faced pentamers 20-22 nm/side arranged as a regular polyhedron. Type II caged vesicles were found in clusters at the boutons, adhered to the active zone, and were also present in axons. Type III synaptic vesicles appeared as electron-dense spheres 60-75 nm in diameter abutted to the membrane of the active zone. Clathrin-coated vesicles and pits of 116.6 +/- 9 nm (mean SD, n = 14) in diameter were also present in both the pre- and postsynaptic sides. Freeze-fracture showed that some intrinsic membrane proteins in the active zone were arranged as pentamers exhibiting the same dimension of those forming cages (approximately 22 nm/side). From these data, we concluded that: (a) the presynaptic bouton contains a heterogeneous population of "caged" and "plain" synaptic vesicles and (b) type II synaptic vesicles bind to receptors in the active zone. Therefore, current models of transmitter release should take into account the substantial heterogeneity of the vesicle population and the binding of vesicular cages to the membrane of the active zone.