Intraseptal injections of the selective cholinergic immunotoxin 192 IgG-saporin (SAP) were performed to determine whether basal forebrain cholinergic neurons are necessary for hormone-mediated enhancement of acquisition in a delayed matching-to-position (DMP) T-maze task. The DMP task is a simple spatial learning task. Studies have shown that continuous estradiol replacement enhances acquisition of the DMP task in young ovariectomized rats and that long-term treatment with either estradiol or estradiol + progesterone can prevent a deficit in DMP acquisition in old rats. In the present study, continuous estradiol replacement significantly enhanced acquisition of the DMP task by non-SAP-treated, ovariectomized rats. In contrast, neither continuous estradiol nor weekly administration of estradiol + progesterone significantly enhanced acquisition of the DMP task in rats that received intraseptal injections of either a high dose (1.0 microg) or a low dose (0.22 microg) of SAP. Animals that reached criterion were significantly impaired by rotating the maze 180 degrees regardless of treatment, suggesting that animals in all groups used extramaze cues to at least some degree to solve the task. SAP-treated animals were slightly more sensitive to increasing the intertrial delay than non-SAP-treated controls, suggesting that the SAP lesions produced a modest deficit in spatial working memory. Immunohistochemistry confirmed the loss of cholinergic neurons in specific regions of the basal forebrain of SAP-treated animals. In addition, DMP acquisition correlated significantly with ChAT activity in the hippocampus and frontal cortex. The data suggest that basal forebrain cholinergic projections are necessary for hormone-mediated enhancement of DMP acquisition.