DiI (1,1'didodecyl-3,3,3',3'-tetramethylindocarbecyanine perchlorate) retrograde labelling and intracellular electrophysiological techniques were used to investigate the mechanisms underlying the generation of spontaneously occurring colonic migrating myoelectric complexes (colonic MMCs) in mice. In isolated, intact, whole colonic preparations, simultaneous intracellular electrical recordings were made from pairs of circular muscle (CM) cells during colonic MMC activity in the presence of nifedipine (1-2 microm). During the intervals between colonic MMCs, spontaneous inhibitory junction potentials (IJPs) were always present. The amplitudes of spontaneous IJPs were highly variable (range 1-20 mV) and occurred asynchronously in the two CM cells, when separated by 1 mm in the longitudinal axis. Colonic MMCs occurred every 151 +/- 7 s in the CM and consisted of a repetitive discharge of cholinergic rapid oscillations in membrane potential (range: 1-20 mV) that were superimposed on a slow membrane depolarization (mean amplitude: 9.6 +/- 0.5 mV; half-duration: 25.9 +/- 0.7 s). During the rising (depolarizing) phase of each colonic MMC, cholinergic rapid oscillations occurred simultaneously in both CM cells, even when the two electrodes were separated by up to 15 mm along the longitudinal axis of the colon. Smaller amplitude oscillations (< 5 mV) showed poor temporal correlation between two CM cells, even at short electrode separation distances (i.e. < 1 mm in the longitudinal axis). When the two electrodes were separated by 20 mm, all cholinergic rapid oscillations and IJPs in the CM (regardless of amplitude) were rarely, if ever, coordinated in time during the colonic MMC. Cholinergic rapid oscillations were blocked by atropine (1 microm) or tetrodotoxin (1 microm). Slow waves were never recorded from any CM cells. DiI labelling showed that the maximum projection length of CM motor neurones and interneurones along the bowel was 2.8 mm and 13 mm, respectively. When recordings were made adjacent to either oral or anal cut ends of the colon, the inhibitory or excitatory phases of the colonic MMC were absent, respectively. In summary, during the colonic MMC, cholinergic rapid oscillations of similar amplitudes occur simultaneously in two CM cells separated by large distances (up to 15 mm). As this distance was found to be far greater than the projection length of any single CM motor neurone, we suggest that the generation of each discrete cholinergic rapid oscillation represents a discreet cholinergic excitatory junction potential (EJP) that involves the synaptic activation of many cholinergic motor neurones simultaneously, by synchronous firing in many myenteric interneurones. Our data also suggest that ascending excitatory and descending inhibitory nerve pathways interact and reinforce each other.