THA (Tacrine) is an anticholinesterase drug reported to alleviate cognitive deficit in Alzheimer's disease. We have used rat isolated superior cervical sympathetic ganglia as a model mammalian cholinergic neural system to study effects of THA on cholinergic synaptic transmission and postsynaptic membrane currents. At 0.1 - 3 microM, THA augmented the postsynaptic depolarizations and inward clamp currents produced by acetylcholine but not by the cholinesterase-resistant analogue, DMPP. Higher concentrations depressed these responses to both acetylcholine and DMPP, and reduced the acetylcholine-induced increase in membrane current noise. At 1 microM, THA did not affect the amplitude or time-course of fast (nicotinic) excitatory postsynaptic currents (epscs) evoked by single orthodromic volleys, but higher concentrations induced a biphasic epsc decay. In contrast, low concentrations of THA (1 - 3 microM) greatly augmented and prolonged the muscarinic slow epsc evoked by repetitive orthodromic volleys: this effect was blocked by 1 microM atropine. Concentrations above 0.1 mM produced a membrane depolarization and inhibited a variety of membrane ionic currents, including voltage-gated Ca current and subsequent Ca-activated K currents, and voltage-gated M- and A-type K currents. It is concluded that the principal effect of THA is to inhibit cholinesterase, and that the main consequence of this is to augment and prolong the muscarinic slow epsc. In contrast, the nicotinic fast epsc is not increased but instead may be reduced through a nicotinic channel-blocking action. Although THA could also block several other ion channels the concentrations required were too high to contribute significantly to its principal pharmacological actions on ganglionic transmission.