The effect of halothane on the physiological response to excitatory stimuli was assessed in clonal (GH3) pituitary cells. Halothane, at concentrations used to produce general anesthesia in animals (0.25–0.76 mM), inhibited thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH)-induced prolactin (PRL) secretion. The sustained (extracellular calcium-dependent) phase of PRL secretion was 70 +/- 7% inhibited by the highest concentration of halothane tested (0.76 mM); 50% inhibition was produced by approximately 0.4 mM halothane. The early (largely inositol trisphosphate-mediated) phase of secretion was less sensitive to halothane; 0.76 mM halothane produced 18 +/- 2% inhibition of the early phase of secretion. Consistent with these observations, halothane inhibited (IC50 approximately 0.45 mM) the sustained phase of the TRH- induced rise in intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i) to a greater extent than the initial [Ca2+]i peak. The sustained phase of the [Ca2+]i elevation was inhibited by 75 +/- 7% at the highest concentration of halothane tested (0.76 mM), whereas the peak [Ca2+]i was only inhibited by 14 +/- 5%, consistent with the observation that halothane did not inhibit TRH-stimulated inositide hydrolysis in these cells. Halothane (0.5 mM) did not inhibit phorbol ester- or ionomycin-induced PRL secretion, indicating that halothane has inconsequential effects on the secretory apparatus. Halothane (0.5 mM) also inhibited KCl-induced PRL secretion by 50–80% and the corresponding KCl-induced rise in [Ca2+]i by 68 +/- 6%. These data indicate that halothane inhibits secretagogue- stimulated PRL secretion by reducing the elevation of [Ca2+]i produced by calcium (Ca2+) influx.