Extracellular H(+) has been hypothesized to mediate feedback inhibition from horizontal cells onto vertebrate photoreceptors. According to this hypothesis, depolarization of horizontal cells should induce extracellular acidification adjacent to the cell membrane. Experiments testing this hypothesis have produced conflicting results. Studies examining carp and goldfish horizontal cells loaded with the pH-sensitive dye 5-hexadecanoylaminofluorescein (HAF) reported an extracellular acidification on depolarization by glutamate or potassium. However, investigations using H(+)-selective microelectrodes report an extracellular alkalinization on depolarization of skate and catfish horizontal cells. These studies differed in the species and extracellular pH buffer used and the presence or absence of cobalt. We used both techniques to examine H(+) changes from isolated catfish horizontal cells under identical experimental conditions (1 mM HEPES, no cobalt). HAF fluorescence indicated an acidification response to high extracellular potassium or glutamate. However, a clear extracellular alkalinization was found using H(+)-selective microelectrodes under the same conditions. Confocal microscopy revealed that HAF was not localized exclusively to the extracellular surface, but rather was detected throughout the intracellular compartment. A high degree of colocalization between HAF and the mitochondrion-specific dye MitoTracker was observed. When HAF fluorescence was monitored from optical sections from the center of a cell, glutamate produced an intracellular acidification. These results are consistent with a model in which depolarization allows calcium influx, followed by activation of a Ca(2+)/H(+) plasma membrane ATPase. Our results suggest that HAF is reporting intracellular pH changes and that depolarization of horizontal cells induces an extracellular alkalinization, which may relieve H(+)-mediated inhibition of photoreceptor synaptic transmission.