The amygdala has emerged as an important forebrain modulator of arousal. Acetylcholine plays a role in the regulation of sleep and wakefulness, particularly rapid eye movement sleep (REM). The major cholinergic input to the amygdala comes from the basal forebrain, a region primarily linked to wakefulness. We examined sleep and the encephalogram for 8 h following bilateral microinjections into the central nucleus of the amygdala (CNA) of the cholinergic agonist, carbachol (CARB(L): 0.3 microg; CARB(H): 3.0 microg), the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, neostigmine (NEO(L): 0.3 microg; NEO(H): 3.0 microg), the muscarinic antagonist, scopolamine (SCO(L): 0.3 microg; SCO(H): 1.0 microg), the nicotinic antagonist, mecamylamine (MEC(L): 0.3 microg; MEC(H): 1.0 microg) and saline (SAL, 0.2 microl) alone. Both doses of CARB and NEO significantly reduced REM, but did not significantly alter non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). Both doses of SCO significantly increased NREM, and SCO(H) also produced an initial increase in REM followed by a significant decrease. CARB(H) and NEO(H) decreased REM electroencephalogram (EEG) power in the 5.5-10 Hz band, and NEO(L) and NEO(H) decreased NREM EEG power in the 0.5-5.0 Hz band. CARB(L) decreased waking EEG power in the 0.5-5.0 Hz band, and NEO(H) decreased waking EEG power in the 5.0-10.0 Hz band. Both doses of SCO significantly increased waking EEG power in the 5.5-10.0 Hz band. Compared with SAL, MEC did not significantly alter sleep or EEG power. The reduction of REM by CARB and NEO and the alteration of sleep by SCO indicate that cholinergic regulation of the amygdala is involved in the control of arousal in rodents. In contrast, CARB microinjections into CNA increase REM in cats, though the reasons for the species difference are not known. The results are discussed in the context of anatomical inputs and species differences in the cholinergic regulation of CNA.