We studied the effects of drugs related to melatonin on neuronal firing activity in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, intergeniculate leaflet and other brain areas in urethane-anesthetized Syrian hamsters. We tested melatonin and two naphthalenic derivatives of melatonin, a putative agonist (S20098: N-[2-(7-methoxy-1-naphthyl)ethyl]acetamide), and a putative antagonist (S20928: N-[2-(1-naphthyl)ethyl]cyclobutyl carboxamide). Both melatonin and S20098 given intraperitoneally (i.p.) were able to suppress firing rates of cells in a similar dose-dependent manner, but the effects of S20098 were longer lasting. Iontophoresis of melatonin dose dependently depressed spontaneous and light-evoked activity of cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and intergeniculate leaflet, while iontophoresis of S20098 was relatively ineffective, probably because it is a poorly charged compound. S20928 (2.0-10 mg/kg, i.p.) alone decreased firing rates of light-sensitive cells by 25-50% for 5-30 min in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and intergeniculate leaflet; however, low doses (< 2.0 mg/kg) of S20928 partially blocked the effects of melatonin agonists on most cells. The non-selective serotonin antagonist metergoline did not block the effects of either melatonin agonist. Both melatonin agonists and antagonists were less effective when applied to cells in the hippocampus and dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus. These results indicate that S20098 is an agonist acting probably on melatonin receptors in the Syrian hamster brain. S20928 may have mixed agonist/antagonist properties, but at low doses appears to function as an antagonist at melatonin receptors in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and intergeniculate leaflet.