Although dopamine (DA)-containing neurons participate in a number of important cerebral functions, the physiology of their synaptic connections is poorly understood. By using whole-cell patch-clamp recording in thin slices of rat mesencephalon, we have investigated the biophysical properties of synaptic events and the nature of neurotransmitter(s) and receptors involved in the synaptic input to DA neurons in substantia nigra. The histological and electrophysiological characteristics of these cells were consistent with those described by recent in vivo and in vitro studies, thus allowing their unequivocal identification. Under appropriate experimental conditions, intranigral stimulation produced excitatory synaptic inputs in DA neurons. By voltage-clamp analysis, most of these excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs) had a rise time of about 1.0 msec and a decay phase that could be fit by the sum of two exponential curves so that a fast and a slow component could be distinguished. The slow component was enhanced by glycine, by removing Mg2+ from the bath medium, or by membrane depolarization. Moreover, the slow component was consistently decreased by selective antagonists of NMDA receptors, whereas an antagonist for the non-NMDA receptors abolished the fast component slightly affecting the slow component and reduced peak EPSC amplitude. The results indicate that both NMDA-sensitive and non-NMDA-sensitive glutamate receptors contribute to EPSCs of DA neurons. Therefore, it is suggested that these receptors may play a critical role in the physiology (control of excitability, pacemaker firing, and dendritic DA release) as well as pathology (neuronal death in Parkinson's disease, psychosis, and mechanism of action of drugs of abuse, such as ethanol) related to DA neurons.