A possible role of the N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDA-R) as a presynaptic autoreceptor was investigated using Percoll-purified hippocampus nerve terminals (synaptosomes). This preparation contained only a neglectable amount of postsynaptic structures. Two main effects of NMDA were observed. First, NMDA dose-dependently (10-100 microM) and in the absence of Mg2+, stimulated basal release of aspartate and glutamate, but not of GABA. MK801 (10 microM), an open NMDA-R-channel blocker, reduced this effect even below control levels, indicating endogenous NMDA-R activation. By superfusing synaptosomes, which prevents a tonic receptor occupation, also basal GABA release was stimulated by NMDA. The NMDA-induced potentiation of amino acid superfusate levels was blocked both by MK801 and Mg2+ (1 mM), was slow in onset and returned to baseline after NMDA-removal. The NMDA-effect was also found in the absence of extracellular Ca2+, suggesting that amino acids were released from a non-vesicular (cytoplasmic) pool. Secondly, in KCl-depolarized synaptosomes exposed to 1 mM Mg2+, NMDA did not affect the release of the amino acids. MK801, however, reduced the KCl-evoked Ca2+-independent release of aspartate and glutamate, but not of GABA. L-trans-PDC, the selective inhibitor of the glutamate/aspartate transporter, prevented this MK801-effect, suggesting a coupling between NMDA-Rs and these transporters. These data provide evidence for a presynaptic NMDA autoreceptor in rat hippocampus. We speculate on the role of this NMDA-R to depolarize the presynaptic membrane by Na+-entry, which may induce reversal of amino acid transporters and thereby releasing amino acids from a cytoplasmic pool.