Phasic acetylcholine release and the volume transmission hypothesis: time to move on

Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009 May;10(5):383-90. doi: 10.1038/nrn2635.


Traditional descriptions of the cortical cholinergic input system focused on the diffuse organization of cholinergic projections and the hypothesis that slowly changing levels of extracellular acetylcholine (ACh) mediate different arousal states. The ability of ACh to reach the extrasynaptic space (volume neurotransmission), as opposed to remaining confined to the synaptic cleft (wired neurotransmission), has been considered an integral component of this conceptualization. Recent studies demonstrated that phasic release of ACh, at the scale of seconds, mediates precisely defined cognitive operations. This characteristic of cholinergic neurotransmission is proposed to be of primary importance for understanding cholinergic function and developing treatments for cognitive disorders that result from abnormal cholinergic neurotransmission.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism*
  • Acetylcholinesterase / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Acetylcholinesterase
  • Acetylcholine