BACKGROUND: Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate (GLU) are involved in nociceptive signals processing in the trigeminal system. In this study, we investigated the influence of excitatory transmission on GABA release in nerve terminals isolated from the rat trigeminal caudal nucleus (TCN). METHODS: We utilize biochemical (superfused synaptosomes loaded with [(3) H]GABA) and morphological (immunofluorescence experiments with specific antibody) techniques. RESULTS: Our results show that GLU potentiates the release of [(3) H]GABA evoked by 9, 15 and 30 mM [K(+) ](e) ; 15 mM [K(+) ](e) -evoked [(3) H]GABA release was also reinforced by domoate and kainate (KA), two naturally occurring GLU-receptor agonists. The enhancement of 15 mM [K(+) ](e) -evoked [(3) H]GABA release produced by 100 μM KA was abolished by NBQX, a mixed AMPA/KA receptor antagonist, but was not affected by GYKI52466, a selective AMPA receptor antagonist. ATPA, a selective agonist for KA receptors containing the GLUK1 subunit, had no effect on depolarization-induced [(3) H]GABA release, and UBP310, which selectively antagonizes these same receptors, failed to reverse the KA-induced potentiation of 15 mM [K(+) ](e) -evoked [(3) H]GABA release. The KA-induced potentiation was also unaffected by concanavalin A (10 μM), a positive allosteric modulator of GLUK1- and GLUK2-containing KA receptors. Immunofluorescence experiments revealed that GABAergic nerve terminals in the TCN differentially expressed GLUK subunits, with GLUK2/3-positive terminals being twice more abundant than GLUK1-containing synaptosomes. CONCLUSIONS: These findings indicate that pre-synaptic KA receptors facilitating GABA release from TCN nerve terminals mainly express GLUK2/GLUK3 subunits, supporting the notion that different types of KA receptors are involved in the various stages of pain transmission.