Activity and calcium-dependent release of neurotransmitters from the somatodendritic compartment is an important signalling mechanism between neurones throughout the brain. NMDA receptors and vesicles filled with neurotransmitters occur in close proximity in many brain areas. It is unknown whether calcium influx through these receptors can trigger the release of somatodendritic vesicles directly, or whether postsynaptic action potential firing is necessary for release of these vesicles. Here we addressed this question by studying local release of serotonin (5-HT) from dorsal raphé nucleus (DRN) neurones. We performed capacitance measurements to monitor the secretion of vesicles in giant soma patches, in response to short depolarizations and action potential waveforms. Amperometric measurements confirmed that secreted vesicles contained 5-HT. Surprisingly, two-photon imaging of DRN neurones in slices revealed that dendritic calcium concentration changes in response to somatic firing were restricted to proximal dendritic areas. This implied that alternative calcium entry pathways may dominate the induction of vesicle secretion from distal dendrites. In line with this, transient NMDA receptor activation, in the absence of action potential firing, was sufficient to induce capacitance changes. By monitoring GABAergic transmission onto DRN 5-HT neurones in slices, we show that endogenous NMDA receptor activation, in the absence of postsynaptic firing, induced release of 5-HT, which in turn increased the frequency of GABAergic inputs through activation of 5-HT 2 receptors. We propose here that calcium influx through NMDA receptors can directly induce postsynaptic 5-HT release from DRN neurones, which in turn may facilitate GABAergic input onto these cells. © 2006 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2006 The Physiological Society.