Cholinergic nerve terminals in the central nervous system are endowed with both muscarinic and nicotinic autoreceptors, mediating inhibition, and enhancement of acetylcholine release, respectively. Exogenous acetylcholine inhibited the K+(15 mM)-evoked overflow of [3H]acetylcholine from superfused rat neocortical synaptosomes; however, in the presence of atropine, this muscarinic inhibition was reversed into a nicotinic potentiation when acetylcholine was added concomitantly with high-K+, but not before depolarization. Increasing concentrations of acetylcholine (plus atropine), nicotine and (+)-anatoxin-a produced elevations of the K+-evoked [3H]acetylcholine overflow resulting in bell-shaped concentration-response curves. Synaptosomes pretreated with different concentrations (10 microM to 0.001 microM) of acetylcholine or nicotine responded to a subsequent nicotinic stimulus (10 microM acetylcholine plus 0.1 microM atropine, in 15 mM K+) in a manner reflecting varying degrees of desensitization. This desensitization could be reversed by washings with standard medium and desensitization was attenuated when external Ca2+ ([Ca2+]e) was decreased. Lowering of [Ca2+]e or chelation of internal Ca2+ with 1,2-bis(2-aminophenoxy)ethone-N,N,N',N'-tetracetic acid acetoxymethylester (BAPTA-AM) permitted the nicotinic response to acetylcholine alone (no atropine added) to prevail over the muscarinic response. Pretreatment with BAPTA-AM could however not prevent desensitization by acetylcholine (10 or 0.001 microM). The data indicate that Ca2+ ions are involved in determining the balance between muscarinic and nicotinic autoreceptor function and in the desensitization of nicotinic autoreceptors.