In the rat, the superficial gray layer (SGS) of the superior colliculus receives glutamatergic projections from the contralateral retina and from the visual cortex. A few fibers from the ipsilateral retina also directly innervate the SGS, but most of the ipsilateral visual input is provided by cholinergic afferents from the opposing parabigeminal nucleus (PBG). Thus, visual input carried by cholinergic afferents may have a functional influence on the responses of SGS neurones. When single neuronal extracellular recording and iontophoretic drug application were employed to examine this possibility, cholinergic agonists were found to depress responses to visual stimulation. Lobeline and 1-acetyl-4-methylpiperazine both depressed visually evoked activity and had a tendency to reduce the background firing rate of the neurones. Carbachol depressed the visual responses without any significant effect on the ongoing activity, while the muscarinic receptor selective agonist methacholine increased the background activity of the neurones and reduced their visual responses. Lobeline was chosen for further studies on the role of nicotinic receptors in SGS. Given that nicotinic receptors are associated with retinal terminals in SGS, and that the activation of presynaptic nicotinic receptors normally facilitates transmitter release (in this case glutamate release), the depressant effects of nicotinic agonists are intriguing. However, many retinal afferents contact inhibitory neurones in SGS; thus it is possible that the increase in glutamate release in turn facilitates the liberation of GABA which goes on to inhibit the visual responses. We therefore attempted to reverse the effects of lobeline with GABA receptor antagonists. The depressant effects of lobeline on the visual response could not be reversed by the GABA(A) antagonist bicuculline, but the GABA(B) antagonist CGP 35348 reduced the effects of lobeline. We hypothesize that cholinergic drive from the parabigeminal nucleus may activate presynaptic nicotinic receptors on retinal terminals, thereby facilitating the release of glutamate onto inhibitory neurones. Consequently GABA is released, activating GABA(B) receptors, and thus the ultimate effect of nicotinic receptor activation is to depress visual responses.