Certain Lamiaceous and Asteraceous plants have long histories of use as restoratives of lost or declining cognitive functions in western European systems of traditional medicine. Investigations were carried out to evaluate human CNS cholinergic receptor binding activity in extracts of those European medicinal plants reputed to enhance or restore mental functions including memory. Ethanolic extracts were prepared from accessions of these plants and a number of other species related by genus. Amongst the plant extracts screened for contents able to displace [3H]-(N)-nicotine and [3H]-(N)-scopolamine from nicotinic receptors and muscarinic receptors, respectively in homogenates of human cerebral cortical cell membranes, the most potent extracts, prepared from one accession of Melissa officinalis, three Salvia species and Artemisia absinthium had IC50 concentrations of < 1 mg/ml. The displacement curves of some extracts were comparable with that of carbamylcholine chloride, a potent acetylcholine analogue. Choline, a weak nicotinic ligand (IC50 = 3 x 10(-4) M) was found in extracts of all plants studied at concentrations of 10(-6)-10(-5) M. These concentrations could not account for not more than 5% of the displacement activity observed. Some extracts displayed differential displacement at nicotinic and muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, with M. officinalis 0033 having the highest [3H]-(N)-nicotine displacement value and Salvia elegans with the highest [3H]-(N)-scopolamine displacement value. There was also considerable variation in cholinoreceptor interactions between different accessions of a single plant species. Although most plant extracts screened showed some nicotinic and muscarinic activity, only some showed dose-dependent receptor activity typical of materials with genuine cholinergic activity.