The basis for the comparative toxicity to parasitic nematodes and their mammalian hosts of the anthelmintics levamisole, pyrantel, and several related analogs on somatic nicotinic cholinergic transmission was examined. Measurements of muscle contractility and membrane potential were made using the isolated hemidiaphragm preparation of the rat and isolated axial muscle segments from the gastrointestinal nematode Haemonchus contortus. Pyrantel caused a dose- and time-dependent reduction of nerve-evoked twitches in the rat diaphragm. These effects were exacerbated by increasing the frequency of phrenic nerve stimulation from 0.5 to 50 Hz. Levamisole was less potent and the onset of its effects slower than pyrantel. Neither drug significantly affected twitches evoked from d-tubocurarine-blocked preparations following direct stimulation of the diaphragm. Twitch depression was reversed by washing, but not by application of physostigmine. In H. contortus, both drugs stimulated a spastic contraction and sustained paralysis in the concentration range of 1-10 microM, mimicking the action of nicotine. Neither nicotinic nor muscarinic antagonists blocked these responses. Moreover, neither nicotinic antagonists nor muscarinic agonists or antagonists had any independent effect on contractility of the parasite muscle segments. The blocking actions of levamisole and pyrantel on H. contortus axial muscle were associated with membrane depolarization at the muscle. In the rat-isolated hemidiaphragm, pyrantel, but not levamisole, depolarized end-plate regions of muscle fibers. d-Tubocurarine blocked the depolarizing action of pyrantel but not levamisole on rat-isolated hemidiaphragm. In axial muscle fibers of H. contortus, d-tubocurarine did not block the depolarizing actions of pyrantel, levamisole, or nicotine. 3-Bromo and 3-amino derivatives of levamisole were equipotent with and mimicked the actions of the parent compound on H. contortus axial muscle contractility. In the rat preparation, the 3-bromo derivative was more potent than levamisole or 3-amino-levamisole. 3-Amino-levamisole, but not 3-bromo-levamisole, depolarized muscle end-plate membrane in the rat diaphragm. Results of the present study are consistent with the following conclusions: (a) both levamisole and pyrantel block contractility of nematode axial muscle by causing sustained depolarization of the muscle membrane; (b) both drugs block neuromuscular transmission at the mammalian neuromuscular junction but their mechanisms appear to differ; (c) levamisole and pyrantel are more potent blockers of neuromuscular transmission in H. contortus than in the rat. These results suggest that potentially important pharmacological differences exist between nematode and mammalian somatic nicotinic receptors.