The effects of changes in perilymphatic tonicity on the semicircular canal were investigated by combining the measurements of transepithelial potential and endolymphatic ionic composition in the isolated frog posterior canal with the electrophysiological assessment of synaptic activity and sensory spike firing at the posterior canal in the isolated intact labyrinth. In the isolated posterior canal, the endolymph was replaced by an endolymph-like solution of known composition, in the presence of basolateral perilymph-like solutions of normal (230 mosmol/kg), reduced (105 mosmol/kg, low NaCl) or increased osmolality (550 mosmol/kg, Na-Gluconate added). Altered perilymphatic tonicity did not produce significant changes in endolymphatic ionic concentrations during up to 5 min. In the presence of hypotonic perilymph, decreased osmolality, K and Cl concentrations were observed at 10 min. In the presence of hypertonic perilymph, the endolymphatic osmolality began to increase at 5 min and by 10 min Na concentration had also significantly increased. On decreasing the tonicity of the external solution an immediate decline was observed in transepithelial potential, whereas hypertonicity produced the opposite effect. In the intact frog labyrinth, mEPSPs and spike potentials were recorded from single fibers of the posterior nerve in normal Ringer's (240 mosmol/kg) as well as in solutions with modified tonicity. Hypotonic solutions consistently decreased and hypertonic solutions consistently increased mEPSP and spike frequencies, independent of the species whose concentration was altered. These effects ensued within 1-2 min after the start of perfusion with the test solutions. In particular, when the tonicity was changed by varying Na concentration the mean mEPSP rate was directly related to osmolality. Size histograms of synaptic potentials were well described by single log-normal distribution functions under all experimental conditions. Hypotonic solutions (105 mosmol/kg) markedly shifted the histograms to the left. Hypertonic solutions (380-550 mosmol/kg, NaCl or Na-Gluconate added) shifted the histograms to the right. Hypertonic solutions obtained by adding sucrose to normal Ringer's solution (final osmolality 550 mosmol/kg) increased mEPSP and spike rates, but did not display appreciable effects on mEPSP size. All effects on spike discharge and on mEPSP rate and size were rapidly reversible. In Ca-free, 10 mM EGTA, Ringer's solution, the sensory discharge was completely abolished and did not recover on making the solution hypertonic. These results indicate that perilymphatic solutions with altered tonicity produce small and slowly ensuing changes in the transepithelial parameters which may indirectly affect the sensory discharge rate, whereas relevant, early and reversible effects occur at the cytoneural junction. In particular, the modulation of mEPSP amplitude appears to be postsynaptic; the presynaptic effect on mEPSP rate of occurrence is presumably linked to local calcium levels, in agreement with previous results indicating that calcium inflow is required to sustain basal transmitter release in this preparation.