Little is known about the effects of sympathetic nerve stimulation on the membrane potential of colonic smooth muscle. In the distal colon of the mouse, intracellular microelectrodes were used to record the effects of lumbar colonic (LCN) and intermesenteric nerve (IMN) stimulation on circular muscle membrane potential in vitro. A two-compartment organ bath was used to selectively perfuse the colon and inferior mesenteric ganglion (IMG). In the presence of nifedipine (1-2 microM) (to the colonic compartment only), spontaneous depolarizations (myoelectric complexes, MCs) were recorded about every 4 min. MCs consisted of a prolonged burst of rapid oscillations in membrane potential (approximately 2 Hz) that were superimposed on a slow depolarization (mean amplitude 12 mV). Single electrical stimuli (600 microseconds duration) delivered to the LCN or IMN did not elicit a detectable change in the membrane potential. However, trains of stimuli (e.g., 60 pulses at 10-20 Hz) to the LCN or IMN during the intervals between MCs evoked a depolarization (with superimposed action potentials in the absence of nifedipine). Trains of stimuli delivered during the plateau phase of the MC reduced or abolished the rapid oscillations, without a further membrane depolarization. The MC period was unaffected by stimulation of the IMN or LCN. Responses were abolished by the selective perfusion of guanethidine (1 microM) to the colon, or by severing the LCN. Hexamethonium (500 microM) (to the colon) abolished MCs, induced sustained depolarization and attenuated the amplitude of the sympathetic depolarizations by 74%. In hexamethonium, sympathetic responses remained attenuated when the membrane of the circular muscle was repolarised by sodium nitroprusside (1 microM). Immunohistochemical studies of the colon revealed intense immunoreactivity for tyrosine hydroxylase in the myenteric plexus but not in the circular muscle layer. It is suggested that responses to sympathetic nerve stimulation in the circular muscle layer of the mouse colon are secondary to actions on the enteric nervous system.