The aims of this work were to determine the influence of chronic electroconvulsive shock (ECS) on presynaptic 5-HT(1A) receptor function, postsynaptic 5-HT(1A) receptor function in hippocampus and hypothalamus, and presynaptic 5-HT(1B) receptor function in hippocampus and hypothalamus. This represents part of an on-going study of the effects of ECS on serotonergic receptor activity in selected brain areas which may be relevant to the effects of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in humans. Chronic ECS reduced the ability of the 5-HT(1A) receptor agonist 8-hydroxy-2(di-n-propylamino)tetraline (8-OH-DPAT) (0.2 mg/kg s.c.) to decrease 5-HT levels in hypothalamus as shown by in vivo microdialysis, indicative of a reduction in sensitivity of presynaptic 5-HT(1A) autoreceptors. The ability of the 5-HT(1B) receptor antagonist GR 127935 (5 mg/kg s.c.) to increase 5-HT levels in both hippocampus and hypothalamus was unaffected by chronic ECS. 8-OH-DPAT (0.2 mg/kg s.c.) increased cyclic AMP levels in hippocampus measured by in vivo microdialysis approximately 2-fold. The degree of stimulation of cyclic AMP formation was not altered by chronic ECS. However the cyclic AMP response to forskolin (50 micro M) administered via the microdialysis probe, which was approximately 4-fold of basal in sham-treated rats, was almost completely abolished in ECS-treated rats. Since this indicates that either adenylate cyclase catalytic unit activity or Gs protein activity is reduced in the hippocampus after chronic ECS, the lack of change in 8-OH-DPAT-induced cyclic AMP formation may be taken as possible evidence of an increase in sensitivity of postsynaptic 5-HT(1A) receptors in the hippocampus by chronic ECS. Chronic ECS increased basal plasma levels of corticosterone, ACTH and oxytocin. The ACTH response to s.c. injections of 0.2 mg/kg or 0.5 mg/kg 8-OH-DPAT was reduced by chronic ECS. Postsynaptic 5-HT(1A) receptor activity in the hypothalamus, in contrast to the hippocampus, thus appears to be desensitized after chronic ECS. We conclude that chronic ECS has regionally specific effects on both pre- and post-synaptic 5-HT(1A) receptors, but, in contrast to some antidepressant drugs, does not affect presynaptic 5-HT(1B) receptor activity.