This study addresses the issue of whether cholinergic varicosities in the cerebral cortex establish 'classical synapses' or whether they communicate with their targets non-synaptically by 'volume transmission'. Most recent studies in the neocortex have suggested that acetylcholine acts non-synaptically, however in the present study we provide ultrastructural evidence that suggests synaptic mechanisms prevail. This conclusion is based upon our ultrastructural observations that cholinergic boutons--as revealed by immunoreactivity for the specific cholinergic market, vesicular acetylcholine transporter--establish a high percentage of classical synapses in layer V of the rat parietal cortex. Furthermore, the combination of this approach with the intracellular labeling of large pyramidal neurons on slice preparations revealed significant incidences of cholinergic contacts abutting preferentially on dendritic shafts. Finally, we have gathered information suggesting that cholinergic boutons undergo atrophy with aging which could be related to the well-known cholinergic and cognitive decline. These results illustrate that the cholinergic terminations in the neocortex establish proper synaptic connections and that they experience important age-dependent atrophy.