The effects of different hormone replacement regimens on basal forebrain cholinergic function were examined by measuring changes in choline acetyltransferase activity and high affinity choline uptake in adult, ovariectomized, rats. Increases in choline acetyltransferase activity were detected in the frontal cortex (20. 1%) and olfactory bulbs (30.4%) following two weeks, but not four weeks, of repeated treatment with estrogen plus progesterone. Increases in high affinity choline uptake were detected in the frontal cortex (39.5-55.1%), hippocampus (34.9-48.9%), and olfactory bulbs (29.9%) after two weeks, but not four weeks, of either continuous estrogen administration, repeated progesterone administration, or repeated treatment with estrogen plus progesterone. Repeated administration of estradiol (2-25 microg/250 g body weight) for two or four weeks, and continuous estrogen administration for four weeks and six months, produced no significant changes in choline acetyltransferase activity or high affinity choline uptake in the hippocampus, frontal cortex or olfactory bulbs. Continuous estrogen administration for 13 months produced a significant decrease in high affinity choline uptake across all regions with the largest effect (-28.1%) detected in the hippocampus. The findings demonstrate that short-term treatment with estrogen and/or progesterone can significantly enhance cholinergic function within specific targets of the basal forebrain cholinergic projections. Most important is the fact that the effects varied considerably according to the manner and regimen of hormone replacement and did not persist with prolonged treatment. These findings could have important implications for the effective use of hormone replacement strategies in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease and age-related cognitive decline in women.