The cellular mechanisms that underlie transient synaptic potentiation were studied in visual cortical slices of adult guinea pigs (≤ age 5 wk postnatal). Postsynaptic potentials (PSPs) elicited by stimulation of the white matter/layer VI border were recorded with conventional intracellular techniques from layer II/III neurons. Transient potentiation (average duration 23 ± 3 min, mean ± SE) was evoked by 60 low-frequency (0.1 Hz) pairings of weak afferent stimulation with coincident intracellular depolarizing pulses (80 ms) of the postsynaptic cell. Fifty-one percent (47 of 92) of the pairing protocols led to significant enhancement (+26 ± 3%) of the PSP peak amplitude. Blockade of action potential output from the recorded neuron during pairing with Lidocaine, N-ethyl bromide quaternary salt in the recording micropipette did not reduce the likelihood of potentiation (7 of 14 protocols = 50%). Thus transient synaptic potentiation does not require action potential output from the paired cell or recurrent synaptic activation in the local cortical circuit. Rather, the modification occurs at synaptic sites that directly impinge onto the activated neuron. Intracellular postsynaptic blockade of inhibitory PSPs only onto the paired cell with the chloride channel blocker 4,4'-dinitro-stilbene-2,2'-disulfonic acid and the potassium channel blocker cesium in the micropipette also did not reduce the likelihood of induction of potentiation (6 of 9 protocols = 67%). These results suggest that the potentiation is due to a true upregulation of excitatory synaptic transmission and that it does not require a reduction of inhibitory components of the compound PSP for induction. Chelation of postsynaptic intracellular calcium with 1,2-bis-2-aminophenoxy ethane- N,N,N',N'-tetraacetic acid (BAPTA) in all cases effectively blocked the induction of potentiation (no change in the PSP, 9 of 13 protocols; induction of synaptic depression, 4 of 13 protocols), suggesting that a rise in the intracellular postsynaptic calcium level is critical for the pairing-induced synaptic potentiation to occur. Bath application of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist 2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid (APV) reversibly blocked potentiation of the PSP peak amplitude in most cells (14 of 16) that were capable of significant potentiation in control solution. Blockade of nitric oxide production with bath application of the competitive inhibitor of nitric oxide synthase, L-nitro-arginine (LNA), did not significantly affect the likelihood of synaptic potentiation (11 of 20 cells). It did, however, block subsequent enhancement for several cells (2 of 4) that had previously had their inputs potentiated. Moreover, LNA increased the overall average magnitude of synaptic potentiation (with an additional +28%) when induction was successful. These results suggest that endogenous cortical nitric oxide production can both positively and negatively modulate this NMDA receptor- mediated type of synaptic plasticity.