Degeneration of the cholinergic magnocellular neurons in the basal forebrain and their cortical projections is a major feature of the neuropathology of Alzheimer's disease. In the present study, two experiments examined the disruptive effects on visual attentional performance of two different manipulations that reduce central cholinergic function. In Expt. I, pharmacological manipulation of the cholinergic system was investigated using icv administration of hemicholinium (HC-3), a high affinity choline uptake blocker, administered either alone or in conjunction with the anticholinesterase, physostigmine. The results revealed impairments in the ability of the rats to localize brief visual targets in a serial reaction time task, as shown in particular by a reduction in choice accuracy and lengthening of the latency to respond correctly to the visual stimulus. Cholinergic specificity was supported by the reversal of these behavioural impairments by pre-treatment with the anticholinesterase, physostigmine. In Expt. II, quisqualate-induced lesions of the basal forebrain produced behavioural deficits at 3 weeks post-lesion surgery similar to those observed following icv infusion of HC-3. In an attempt to restore the extrinsic cortical cholinergic innervation by reinnervation of the deafferented cortex, embryonic basal forebrain cholinergic cells were transplanted into the cortex of lesioned animals. After three months recovery, impairments in performance on the baseline schedule of the task were no longer apparent in lesioned animals. However, behavioural deficits, observed predominantly as a lengthening of correct response latency, could be reinstated in the lesioned animals by interpolation of distracting bursts of white noise during each trial, and this deficit was ameliorated by the cholinergic grafts. Furthermore, a non-specific effect of both cholinergic and non-cholinergic grafts in controlling the increase in perseverative time-out responses which occurred as a result of the basal forebrain lesion was consistently observed. These results suggest that cholinergic dysfunction can produce deficits in visual attention which can be ameliorated by cholinergic treatments such as physostigmine or cholinergic-rich cortical grafts. These data provide support for a role for the basal forebrain-neocortical cholinergic projection in attentional function.