The regulation of GRF secretion was studied using a fetal rat hypothalamic cell culture system. The cells were subjected to short term release experiments on days 10-18 after plating, and GRF secretion was assessed by RIA. The identity of GRF immunoreactivity in the incubation medium was confirmed by reverse phase liquid chromatographic analysis. Depolarization of the cells with 56 mM K+ evoked a 4-fold increase in basal GRF release. When cultures were pretreated for 6 days with the adenylate cyclase activator forskolin, basal GRF release was augmented in subsequent release experiments to levels 2-fold greater than those in the control cultures. In nonpretreated cultures, forskolin (1-100 microM) and the protein kinase C activator phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (10 nM-1 microM), stimulated basal GRF release in a dose-dependent fashion. The Ca2+ channel blocker verapamil (100 microM) significantly inhibited the GRF response to both forskolin and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate. The gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) agonist muscimol (0.1-10 microM) inhibited forskolin-stimulated, but not K+ stimulated, GRF release in a dose-dependent manner. This inhibition was reversed by the GABA antagonists bicuculline and picrotoxinin. Muscimol (10 microM) slightly suppressed basal GRF release. The present findings suggest that GRF secretion can be evoked by agents known to increase intracellular cAMP levels or activate protein kinase-C. They also support a role for GABA in the inhibitory control of GRF secretion.