The role of intracellular cAMP and protein kinase A in dopamine-induced inhibition of dopamine neurons and the attenuation of this inhibition by neurotensin were studied in rat midbrain slices. Spontaneous activity of dopamine cells was recorded extracellularly from both the ventral tegmental area and the substantia nigra. Perfusion of the slices with 8-bromo-cAMP and forskolin significantly attenuated dopamine-induced inhibition, but neither blocked the inhibition completely. Neither SQ22536, an inhibitor of adenylate cyclase, nor H8, an inhibitor of protein kinase A, mimicked the inhibitory effect of dopamine on dopamine neurons, although they potentiated dopamine's effect. These results indicate that dopamine-induced inhibition of dopamine neurons can be affected by intracellular cAMP levels, but is unlikely to be mediated solely by inhibition of adenylate cyclase. The similarities between the effects of neurotensin and those of 8-bromo- cAMP and forskolin suggest that intracellular cAMP may be involved in the actions of neurotensin. This suggestion is supported by our findings that isobutyl-methylxanthine (an inhibitor of phosphodiesterases) potentiated the effect of neurotensin and SQ22536 and H8 antagonized it. Phorbol-12,13-dibutyrate (an activator of protein kinase C) did not mimic the effect of neurotensin, and H7 (an inhibitor of protein kinase C) did not reduce the effect, suggesting that protein kinase C is unlikely to be involved in the modulatory effect of neurotensin.