Recent studies have emphasized the role of acetylcholine (ACh) as an excitatory modulator of neuronal activity in mammalian cortex and hippocampus. Much less is known about the mechanism of direct cholinergic inhibition in the central nervous system or its role in regulating neuronal activities. Here we report that application of ACh to thalamic nucleus reticularis (nRt) neurones, which are known to receive a cholinergic input from the ascending reticular system of the brain stem, causes a hyperpolarization due to a relatively small (1-4 nS) increase in membrane conductance to K+. This cholinergic action appears to be mediated by the M2 subclass of muscarinic receptors and acts in conjunction with the intrinsic membrane properties of nucleus reticularis neurones to inhibit single spike activity while promoting the occurrence of burst discharges. Thus, cholinergic inhibitory mechanisms may be important in controlling the firing pattern of this important group of thalamic neurones.