Anatomical studies indicate that synaptic inputs from many cortical and subcortical structures converge on neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Although in vitro electrophysiological studies have examined synaptic inputs to dopamine (DA) and non-DA neurons in the VTA, they have largely relied upon local electrical stimulation to activate these synapses. This provides little information regarding the distinct properties of synapses originating from different brain areas. Using whole-cell recordings in parasagittal rat brain slices that preserved subcortical axons from the pedunculopontine nucleus (PPN) to the VTA, we compared these synapses with those activated by intra-VTA stimulation. PPN-evoked currents demonstrated longer latencies than intra-VTA-evoked currents, and both VTA and PPN responses were mediated by GABAA and AMPA receptors. However, unlike VTA-evoked currents, PPN currents were exclusively mediated by glutamate in 25–40% of the VTA neurons. Consistent with a cholinergic projection from the PPN to the VTA, nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) were activated by endogenous acetylcholine released during PPN, but not VTA, stimulation. This was seen as a reduction of PPN-evoked, and not VTA-evoked, synaptic currents by the α7-nAChR antagonist methyllycaconitine (MLA) and the agonist nicotine. The β2-nAChR subunit antagonist dihydro-β-erythroidine had no effect on VTA- or PPN-evoked synaptic currents. The effects of MLA on PPN-evoked currents were unchanged by the GABAA receptor blocker picrotoxin, indicating that α7-nAChRs presynaptically modulated glutamate and not GABA release. These differences in physiological and pharmacological properties demonstrate that ascending PPN and presumed descending inputs to VTA utilize distinct mechanisms to differentially modulate neuronal activity and encode cortical and subcortical information.