Previously, using brain slices, we reported NO-mediated cGMP synthesis in all cholinergic fibers in the rat neocortex. In order to answer the question whether this property of cholinergic fibers was present before or developed after birth, we investigated properties of NO-responsiveness of cultured cholinergic forebrain neurons. Basal forebrain neurons of E16 fetal rat were cultured. Under the conditions chosen and after one day of culturing, all cells had attained a cholinergic phenotype using choline acetyltransferase or the vesicular acetylcholine transporter molecule as markers. Between 95-99% of the cells also expressed neuronal NOS. In the presence of 1 mM IBMX, a non-selective phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibitor, 10 microM of the NO donor diethylamine-NONOate (DEANO) increased cGMP synthesis in 80% of the cells. cGMP levels in the cultured forebrain neurons were also increased when cells were stimulated with DEANO in the presence of the selective PDE inhibitors BAY 60-7550 (PDE2), sildenafil (PDE5), or the mixed type inhibitor papaverine (PDE2,5,10). Subpopulations of cells from the basal forebrain expressed mRNA for PDE2, PDE5, and PDE9. Atropine increased cGMP levels in an NO-dependent manner in a small population of cultured forebrain cells in the presence of IBMX. In conclusion, cultured cholinergic basal forebrain neurons present a heterogeneous cell population in the magnitude of their response to NO. NO-responsiveness of the cultured cholinergic neurons is already detectable after one day of culturing and indicates that NO-sensitivity of the cholinergic neurons of the rat basal forebrain is present well before birth.