Retrieval of inhibitory avoidance has been recently shown to require intact glutamate receptors, protein kinases A and C and mitogen-activated protein kinase in the CA1 region of the rat hippocampus and in the entorhinal, posterior parietal and anterior cingulate cortex. These enzymatic activities are known to be modulated by dopamine D(1), beta-noradrenergic, 5HT1A and cholinergic muscarinic receptors. Here we study the effect on retrieval of this task of well-known agonists and antagonists of these receptors infused in the same brain cortical regions and into the basolateral amygdala, in rats. The drugs used were SKF38393 (D(1) agonist), noradrenaline, 8-HO-DPAT (5HT1A agonist), oxotremorine (muscarinic agonist), SCH23390 (D(1) antagonist), timolol (beta antagonist), NAN-190 (5HT1A antagonist) and scopolamine (muscarinic antagonist). All were studied at two different dose levels. The localised infusion of SKF38393, noradrenaline, NAN-190 and oxotremorine into any of the cortical structures mentioned 10 min prior to a 24-h retention test session of one-trial step-down inhibitory avoidance enhanced retention test performance. SCH2330, timolol, 8-HO-DPAT and scopolamine hindered retention test performance. In the basolateral amygdala only an enhancing effect of noradrenaline and an inhibitory effect of timolol were seen. Three hours after the infusions, retention test performance returned to normal in all cases. None of the treatments affected locomotion or rearing in an open field or behaviour in the elevated plus maze. Therefore, their effects on retention testing can be attributed to an influence on retrieval. In conclusion, memory retrieval of this apparently simple task requires the participation of CA1, entorhinal, posterior parietal and anterior cingulate cortex, and is strongly modulated by, dopaminergic D(1), beta-noradrenergic, muscarinic cholinergic and 5HT1A receptors in the four areas. The first three types of receptor enhance, and the latter inhibits, retrieval. Only beta-adrenoceptors appears to be involved in the modulation of retrieval of this task by the amygdala. The results bear on the well-known influence of emotion and mood on retrieval, and indicate that this involves many areas of the brain simultaneously. In addition, the results point to similarities and differences between the modulatory mechanisms that affect retrieval and those involved in the consolidation of the same task.