The biologically active lipid platelet-activating factor (1-O-alkyl-2-acetykn-glycero-3-phosphorylcholine, PAF) is a mediator of inflammatory and immune responses, and it accumulates in the brain during convulsions or ischemia. We have examined whether PAF may play a second messenger role in the central nervous system by studying effects on synaptic transmission in cultured hippocampal neurons. Carbamyl-PAF, a nonhydrolyzable PAF analog with a similar pharmacologic profile, augmented glutamate-mediated, evoked excitatory synaptic transmission and increased the frequency of spontaneous miniature excitatory synaptic events without increasing their amplitude or altering their time course. This compound had no significant effect on γ-aminobutyric acid-mediated inhibitory synaptic responses. Lyso-PAF, the biologically inactive metabolic intermediate, had no effect on synaptic transmission. Moreover, the enhancement of excitatory synaptic transmission by carbamyl-PAF was blocked by a PAF receptor antagonist. These results indicate a specific presynaptic effect of PAF in enhancing excitatory synaptic transmission in cultured rat hippocampal neurons.