The nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS) integrates visceral sensory signals with information from the forebrain to control homeostatic functions, including food intake. Melanocortin 3/4 receptor (MC3/4R) ligands administered directly to the caudal brainstem powerfully modulate meal size but not frequency, suggesting the enhancement of visceral satiety signals. Using whole-cell recordings from rat brainstem slices, we examined the effects of melanocortin ligands, alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alphaMSH) and melanotan II (MTII), on EPSC in NTS neurons. Thirty-two percent of NTS neurons responded to perfusion with MTII or alphaMSH with either an increase (24%) or a decrease (8%) in the frequency, but not amplitude, of spontaneous EPSCs; the effects of MTII were abolished by pretreatment with SHU9119. After surgical vagal deafferentation, only four of 34 (9%) NTS neurons responded to MTII with an increase in EPSC frequency. When EPSCs were evoked by electrical stimulation of the tractus solitarius in Krebs' solution with 2.4 mm Ca(2+)(e), alphaMSH and MTII increased the amplitude in six of the 28 neurons tested, decreased amplitude in 14 with no effect in the remaining eight neurons. In four of six neurons unresponsive to MTII, decreasing Ca(2+)(e) levels to 1.5 mM uncovered an excitatory effect of MTII on EPSC amplitude. Reverse transcription-PCR analysis revealed the presence of MC4R, but not MC3R, in nodose ganglia. These results show that MC4R signaling leads mainly to presynaptic modulation of glutamatergic synaptic transmission and suggest that melanocortinergic-induced decrease of food intake may occur via enhancement of vagal afferent satiation signals from the gastrointestinal tract.