Release of alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH) from 250 micron frontal slices of rat hypothalamus superfused at 37 degrees C with oxygenated artificial cerebrospinal fluid (ACSF) was quantified in freeze-dried samples of ACSF by radioimmunoassay. Significant reproducible increases in alpha-MSH release were caused by 40-70 mM K+ in ACSF, maximum release being caused by 50 mM K+. Fifty mM K+-stimulated alpha-MSH release was abolished in the absence of Ca2+ from ACSF and by the presence of 10(-6) M tetrodotoxin. Tetrapentylammonium ions, 10(-4) M and 10(-3) M, stimulated dose-dependent increases in alpha-MSH release. The data support a putative neurotransmitter/neuromodulator role for alpha-MSH in the CNS.